Scared of Snakes? Read This!
Here is an excerpt from Influencer: The Power To Change Anything about an experiment by Dr. Albert Bandura performed seeking to help people overcome their fear of snakes.
“To find plausible subjects, Bandura ran an ad in the Palo Alto News asking people who had a paralyzing fear of snakes to descend into the basement of the psychology department to get cured. He had hoped that at least a dozen subjects would respond. Despite the creepy tone of the ad, hundreds of people made their way to the research site. All had been seriously debilitated by their unreasonable fear of things that slither. Most had horrible nightmares, many were veritable shut-ins, and since their irrational fear extended to even harmless garter snakes, the possible subjects suffered endless ridicule and indignity. It’s little wonder that they showed up for therapy; they were desperate.
With the stage set, Dr. Bandura and his team were ready to explore influence techniques. They could now study what it takes to convince people that some of their views are unfounded—thus propelling them to change their behavior. Success would be achieved when subjects could sit with a six-foot red-tailed boa constrictor draped across their lap. How hard could that be? None of the subjects would so much as enter the room containing a snake in a covered terrarium. Bandura did not start with the method most of us would have chosen—he did not lecture. When it comes to confronting people who hold unrealistic fears (or just plain stupid ideas), we’ve all done it. We figure that words, well chosen and expertly delivered, can set the record straight. Bandura knew that the best way to overcome a phobia is to confront what one fears and then to be enabled to exercise control over it, but he also recognized that lectures and coercion would only reinforce the phobic’s dread and inability to act. It turns out that phobics typically remain phobics because they rarely disconfirm their unfounded fears by approaching them head-on.
Since lectures don’t work with phobics and you can’t get them to conquer their fear through personal experience, you have to find something in between—something more than words and less than personal action. This “in between” thing turns out to be one of the most highly valued tools in any influence genius’s arsenal. It’s referred to as vicarious experience. Here’s how vicarious experience works. When you expose subjects to other people who are demonstrating a vital behavior, the subjects learn from the surrogate’s successes and failures. Watching others in action is the next best thing to experiencing something on your own. It’s also far safer than, say, touching a six-foot nocturnal predator. In Bandura’s case, he asked subjects to watch the therapist handle a snake in order to see what happened.
Bandura asked subjects to watch from the doorway of the room—or if that was still too difficult, to watch through glass—as the therapist walked into the room containing the snake, took a look at it, opened the terrarium, petted the snake, and finally removed the boa and placed it on his or her lap.
After the subjects watched someone else handle the snake, Dr. Bandura then asked them to follow similar steps. First they had to simply walk into the room. But this wasn’t enough to put everyone at ease. Some of the subjects asked for protective gear—hockey goalie gloves, a baseball catcher chest protector and mask, and so on. Now, dressed like a samurai warrior, subjects entered the room and stood next to the enclosed tank. Gradually, after several tries they worked up to removing the terrarium cover and then quickly retreated from the room. No harm done. After a bit more experience, they finally touched the snake. Later still they touched the snake without gloves and so forth. Eventually subjects sat in the room by themselves with the six-foot constrictor draped across their lap.
And now for the real miracle: The entire process took only three hours!” (Patterson, Kerry; Grenny, Joseph; David Maxfield; Ron McMillan; Al Switzler, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything )
Oh the power of substitution!