Virtual Reality Treatment of Spider Phobia
Summary. In this study Carlin, Hoffman, and Weghorst (1997) describe how a case of spider phobia was treated using virtual reality. The client learns to deal with virtual spiders before moving on to the real thing. We present only some of the data from the original article. In addition to the fear of spiders measure, Carlin et al. used several other quantitative and qualitative measures that indicated a reduction in anxiety as treatment progressed. This study shows that it can be difficult to determine the effectiveness of a treatment from a single case, although that is what must be attempted is some instances.
Video. Scientific American Frontiers: Spiders! (1998, Season 9), Arachnophobia segment. The segment begins about 46 minutes into the program. You can show the entire segment, and ask students how one might go about evaluating the effectiveness of the treatment. The video shows how virtual reality treatment was used for an individual with spider phobia. The client describes how she behaved and felt before and after treatment. She had 12 hour-long treatment sessions over 3 months. The Arachnophobia video segment can be viewed online (as of August 2018).
Original Research. Carlin, A. S., Hoffman, H. G. & Weghorst, S. (1997). Virtual reality and tactile augmentation in the treatment of spider phobia: A case report. Behavior Research and Therapy, 35, 153- 158.
Design. Single subject, compared to scores of a group.
Statistical Analysis. One dependent measure was a 6-item questionnaire to measure fear of spiders, which was given before and after treatment (the total score could range from 6 to 42). The client's scores were also compare to the distribution of scores obtained from 280 college students. Before treatment, the client's fear-of-spiders score was 41, and after treatment it was 17.
Published Results. “Prior to treatment, only 1 undergraduate out of 280 had an equal or higher fear-of-spiders rating than the patient. After 12 sessions of VR desensitization treatment, the patient's fear rating dropped considerably. Twenty-nine percent of the 280 undergraduates tested (i.e. 80 students) now had equal or higher total fear-of-spider scores than the patient.” (p. 155- 156).
Published conclusions. “The present study shows that treatment of spider phobia in VR (a form of training) successfully transferred to the real world. Our clinical patient's fear of real spiders was abated by exposure to virtual spiders. Systematic desensitization with VR graded exposure was effective in reducing reported anxiety, and avoidance of real spiders.” (p. 156).
Table 1. Distribution of fear-of-spider scores in 280 college undergraduates (based on Figure 1 in Carlin et al.) for comparison to the patient's scores before and after treatment. Higher scores indicate more fear.
Score -- Frequency
42-45 -- 1
38-41 -- 8
34-37 -- 12
30-33 -- 11
26-29 -- 14
22-25 -- 15
18-21 -- 21
14-17 -- 31
10-13 -- 58
6-9 -- 109
The Excel file for this activity contains the 280 separate cases in random order.