Imagine being able to design an experience that is so powerful it transforms someone with a deep fear of spiders into someone that could touch a tarantula. Now imagine this designed experience is only 3 hours long and creates lasting effects on the brain regions associated with fear that can be detected with a brain scan 6 months later!
That is exactly what researchers at Northwestern University achieved in a study of 12 adults with lifelong debilitating spider phobias. Participants went through a single 3-hour session of exposure therapy as described below.
“During the therapy, participants were taught about tarantulas and learned their catastrophic thoughts about them were not true. “They thought the tarantula might be capable of jumping out of the cage and on to them,” Hauner said. “Some thought the tarantula was capable of planning something evil to purposefully hurt them. I would teach them the tarantula is fragile and more interested in trying to hide herself. “
They gradually learned to approach the tarantula in slow steps until they were able to touch the outside of the terrarium. Then they touched the tarantula with a paintbrush, a glove and eventually pet it with their bare hands or held it.
“They would see how soft it was and that its movements were very predictable and controllable,” Hauner said. “Most tarantulas aren’t aggressive, they just have a bad reputation.”
The cognitive and behavioral features of this experience design are clear. The question for innovators is will they work to produce rapid, deep and lasting behavior change in other contexts?
More generally, is exposure therapy a reusable design pattern for shifting mental models and producing lasting behavior change?