Effects of an Expanding-Spaced Vs Massed Exposure Schedule on Fear Reduction and Return of Fear

Published in: Behaviour Research and Therapy, v. 36, no. 7/8, July 1998, p. 701-717

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 1998

by Melissa Rowe, Michelle G. Craske

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The current investigation assessed the relative benefits of a massed vs. an expanding-spaced exposure schedule. The study was a 2 (distribution of sessions) x 3 (assessment occasion) design, in which two spider-fearful groups (N=31) were compared across three different occasions: pre-training, post-training, and follow-up. Four exposure trials were conducted within the same day for participants in the massed exposure (ME) group, whereas sessions were distributed over the course of 1 week (inter-trial intervals doubled between sessions) for the expanding-spaced exposure (ESE) group. As predicted, although the ME group demonstrated significantly more habituation than the ESE group across exposure trials, they also showed a clear return of fear (ROF) in response to the training spider at a 1-month follow-up assessment, whereas the ESE group showed no increase in fear. Additionally, the ME group showed ROF in response to novel spiders post-training and at the 1-month follow-up, whereas ESE participants did not. These findings offer support for the beneficial effects of an expanding-spaced schedule and challenge the reliance on indices of fear activation and habituation as accurate signals of the permanence of fear reduction.

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