Knowledge Beats Fear: A Lesson From the Ferocious Cuscus

by Channon Hodge

The cuscus, a cute but obscure Australian marsupial, is gentle and shy. But in a recent study, scientists told 72 elementary school kids that the cuscus has sharp teeth, eats blood and will scratch your skin. To no one’s surprise, all the children were scared of the cuscus.

Creating fear in children is a harsh way to begin a study, but this was the perfect scenario for researchers to then find the best way to dispel that fear. It’s part of their ongoing research.

These researchers believe if they can figure out how the fear gets in they can use that same pathway to get the fear out.  From this study, scientists concluded that hearing negative information can create terror in children, but then hearing lots of positive information can help undo the damage.  In fact, it is the strongest weapon. Their latest finding will appear in the June issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

The children in this study had never heard of a cuscus. So, researchers controlled all available information and were confident that bad-mouthing the cuscus caused all the trouble. They then divided the children into three groups. While they left one group to ruminate, they attempted two different ways to calm down the children in the other two groups.

Researchers told some children that a cartoon hero, Ash Ketchum of Pokemon fame, likes the ferocious cuscus and can even train it. The fear level dropped because kids felt that perhaps they, too, could be as brave as Ash Ketchum and train the cuscus. The scientists found that teaching kids to cope with fear through imagination was successful.

Scientists told the third group that they’d gotten their facts mixed up. They now told the kids good things about the cuscus.  Facts like: it eats strawberries, it has soft paws and it tumbles on its belly. The kids believed them and their fear level also dropped. What’s more, their fear turned into positive curiosity. When offered the chance to turn the tables and ask the researchers questions, these kids wanted to know more and more positive things like, “How does the cuscus raise it’s babies?”

Conversely, the brave little Pokemon kids showed that they still had lingering doubts. Even though they seemed fine at first, they tended towards more negative questions. Dr. Jorg Huijding said this showed that apprehension still lurked inside.

“This could be a bad thing because you think, immediately after the intervention – yes the child reports less fear,” said Huijding. “But then if you do nothing anymore, maybe this negative confirmation bias will after a while, result in a return of fear.”

In essence, he explained, all things contain good and bad aspects, and if people look for negative things, they are trying to confirm that they are right to hold onto a little seed of apprehension. That apprehension could grow back again.

In the end, every last child was told the truth about the innocent cuscus and given a pen and stickers. Huijding said he was happy to note that fear in all the kids had dropped, further solidifying the power of positive information.

“You don’t have to only tell positive things because, well, people will eventually find out negative things as well,” said Huijding, thinking about all of the studies they’ve done so far. “So it’s good to give a lot of information which puts things in perspective.”

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