The $5 Snake Phobia Cure
Posted by Victor Yalom, PhD on 3/30/18 - 2:12 PM

On my way to the airport recently my Lyft driver asked my wife and me what we do for a living, so I told him that we produce training videos for mental health professionals. Sometimes that’s a conversation stopper; people say something like “oh, interesting….” and the banter trails off. But he didn’t miss a beat and told me he had seen a psychologist for three sessions, but the therapist said very little, and he stopped going. I thought to myself, “oh no, another client with a sub-optimal experience with a too-passive therapist.” Although he was quite chatty, I didn’t feel we had enough “Lyft alliance” for me to inquire about the reason for his consultation, but he then relayed a related story.

He told me he had experienced a severe snake phobia, so much so that he couldn’t even look at a picture of a snake. He also had a fear of being alone (join the club, I thought). One day he was with a friend in a touristy area, and spotted a man with a large snake around his neck, offering the general public the privilege of sporting his snake in a photo pose for a mere $5. Before his pre-frontal cortex was able to chart out a course on Google maps to his Broca’s area to articulate that this wasn’t a business proposition he was interested in, his friend snatched the snake and put it around his neck, and snapped a few photos.

Somehow this quick action threw a monkey wrench into his previously established phobic narrative, and he found himself touching the snake and liking the experience. Voila, phobia cured in a few seconds for only $5!

This reminded me of an interview I did a few years ago with the legendary Albert Bandura at Stanford, where he relayed to me his studies using systematic densensitization to quickly and effectively cure snake phobics. When I first heard about this, I thought “so what?”—I’d been in private practice for many years, treated hundreds of clients, and didn’t recall a single one complaining of a snake phobia, or any other phobia for that matter. But Bandura explained that the folks in his study were in some cases really handicapped by their phobia, for example: plumbers who were afraid to crawl under a house because of their fear. And so eliminating the fear really did have profound ripple effects in their lives.

Such was the case with the unnamed Lyft driver. He told us that this instant success at curing his snake phobia gave him confidence in other matters. He realized that the fear was all in his head, and that suddenly other fears lost their potency. His fear of being alone, for example: he realized it’s not such a terrible thing. This gave him the courage to walk away from a lousy relationship with his girlfriend, and he reported being happily single.

I’m not much a behaviorist, but examples such as this further convince me that it’s just plain silly to limit your “interventions” to whatever school or orientation you align yourself with. I know, I know…others will argue that fidelity to a specific model is important. I respectfully disagree. Success breeds success. If our Lyft driver can conquer one fear and this has ripple effects throughout his life, more power to him. He got great treatment for 5 bucks!
 


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections