The return of extinguished fear of public speaking

Extinction cues, a set of behavioral therapeutics technique involving using physical or mental reminders to reinforce the loss of a fear that has effectively been eliminated, are not effective at reducing the rebound in anxiety about public speaking after successful treatment, according to a study to be published in the journal Behavior Modification.

Fear of public speaking is a common anxiety. Behavioral psychologists have developed effective therapies for this anxiety, involving a technique known as an exposure practice hierarchy. This therapy involves completing a series of public speaking tasks which gradually increase in difficulty, from reading a simple text in front of an audience to delivering an improvised speech in front of an audience who ask questions.

Although usually very effective in the short run, therapy using the exposure practice hierarchy often results in a rebound in some anxiety when the object of fear (in this case public speaking) is encountered outside of therapy. The use of extinction cues, which may be either physical objects used in therapy and carried during later anxiety-causing situations, or mental rehearsal of the lessons learned in therapy, has been found to reduce this rebound in the treatment of other fears, including fear of spiders.

A team of psychologists led by Mario Laborda, of Binghamton University, conducted a study to determine whether extinction cues could help reduce rebound in fear of public speaking. A sample of 38 college students with a fear of public speaking was recruited for the study.

Participants were divided into three groups. All groups received exposure practice hierarchy therapy, two groups additionally were given extinction cues during therapy (one group physical, the other mental) while the third received no extinction cues. Separately, all participants delivered an improvised speech before treatment, and another two days after treatment in a different room. Their anxiety levels were measured throughout delivery of all of the speeches.

Consistent with previous studies, participants’ anxiety levels in all groups dropped dramatically after practice hierarchy therapy, in comparison to the first speech. A slight rebound effect was also present in all three groups, with anxiety levels rising marginally in the speech delivered two days after treatment. The extent of the rebound was not reduced by either form of extinction cue.

The study authors conclude that there may be differences in the nature of the fear of public speaking that make the use of extinction cues less effective than in the treatment of other forms of phobia (such as fear of spiders or fear of heights). People suffering from this common anxiety may take comfort in the fact that effective therapies exist, but may want to keep their expectations realistic about the likelihood that the fear may reoccur after treatment.