Failure to replicate the deleterious effects of safety behaviors in exposure therapy
The current study attempted to replicate the finding obtained by Powers, Smits, and Telch (2004; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 448-545) that both the availability and utilization of safety behaviors interfere with the efficacy of exposure therapy. An additional goal of the study was to evaluate which explanatory theories about the detrimental effects of safety behaviors best account for this phenomenon. Undergraduate students (N= 58) with high claustrophobic fear were assigned to one of three treatment conditions: (a) exposure only, (b) exposure with safety behavior availability, and (c) exposure with safety behavior utilization. Participants in each condition improved substantially, and there were no significant between-group differences in fear reduction. Unexpectedly, exposure with safety behavior utilization led to significantly greater improvement in self-efficacy and claustrophobic cognitions than exposure only. The extent to which participants inferred danger from the presence of safety aids during treatment was associated with significantly less improvement on all outcome measures. The findings call into question the hypothesized deleterious effects of safety behaviors on the outcome of exposure therapy and highlight a possible mechanism through which the mere presence of safety cues during exposure trials might affect treatment outcomes depending on participants' perceptions of the dangerousness of exposure stimuli.