What’s one of your biggest fears? Spiders maybe? Public speaking? Annual performance reviews?
Let’s say it’s snakes. Many people are terrified of snakes. Picture one now in your mind. Now imagine that you are being asked to stand near the snake. Now you are being asked to touch it, or even hold it.
Albert Bandura is 90 years old now and widely considered one of the greatest living psychologists, and among the greatest ever alongside BF Skinner, Freud and Paiget. Dr. Bandura still practices in his office at Stanford today.
Over forty years ago he started experimenting with helping people overcome their phobias, and he started working with people who are afraid of snakes. These are people who had such profound paralyzing fear of snakes that they were terrified of even walking in a park or a garden lest they might come across one. Their phobia of snakes had truly become a limiting factor in their quality of life.
He would bring the patient into his office and tell them that there is a snake in the next room, behind that door, and that they are going to go in there and touch it. You can imagine the reaction. Most patients told Dr. Bandura what he could do with that idea! There was no way on earth they were going in there. Ever.
First Dr. Bandura would have the patient stand behind a one-way mirror facing the adjacent room and have the patient look at the snake being held by a veterinarian. The patients would often panic in belief that the snake was going to suddenly attack and strangle the veterinarian. But instead the snake was held comfortably and lazily by the handler.
Next Dr. Bandura would ask the patient to put on thick leather gloves and even a protective mask, if they wish, and stand in the same room as the snake. And finally, Bandura and his patient would gradually approach the handler and the snake. Over time using this slow approach he called “guided mastery”, his patients developed the ability to touch the snake with a gloved hand, and ultimately even hold the snake in their own hands.
And just like that, their phobia would be gone. Dr. Bandora checked in with his patients in the days and weeks after they left his offices, and universally he discovered that their phobias stayed gone. In one interview with a patient long after her session with the snake, she recounted having a dream in which a friendly boa constrictor helped her wash the dishes. Another patient was able to wear a necklace for the first time in her life. And another patient dramatically increased their real estate sales because they were no longer afraid to show rural properties.
The post-snake-touching interviews with his former patients also revealed something more profound. Many of his former patients reported that once they had been cured of a once-debilitating phobia, they started trying out other new activities. Some started doing public speaking, or taking more audacious risks in their professional work. One patient started horseback riding. In general his patients reported feeling more free, more uninhibited by fear.
Bandura’s conclusion from his research was that by destroying one fear in their life, people had begun to develop the mindset that they could change other paralyzing aspects of their lives as well.
If you can destroy one of your fears, it could affect your entire life.
Shawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful elearning courses based on the work of thought-leaders and authors. He is also the author of Out•Think: How Innovative Leaders Drive Exceptional Outcomes.