Queens College professor takes aim at phobias

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A Queens College professor has launched a new study he said could help city residents deal with their fear of those unpleasant creatures that inevitably come with city life — such as rats, spiders and cockroaches.

Harvey Baker, who teaches psychology at Queens College, is now recruiting subjects for the study that will look at a variety of techniques that aim to quickly cure people of their fears and phobias of the rodents and arachnids the professor keeps in his school laboratory.

Baker expects to have 60 subjects, each of whom will be paid $45 for the single 2 1/2-hour session they must attend.

“I’ve seen instances where a person with a longstanding phobia will get over it in five minutes,” Baker said. “People are skeptical about this so we want hard evidence that it works and works more rapidly.”

During the session, individuals will first be exposed to their fear, either physically seeing something like a rat or water bug or simply thinking of it, and then they will go through one of several treatments. The treatments include verbal affirmations — saying something positive about oneself, reading pleasant magazine articles and tapping on acupuncture points.

Once they have undergone the treatment, they will then again be exposed to the mice, rats, snakes or whatever they are afraid of and Baker will record their reaction.

“We believe these various approaches lead to relaxation, which leads to counter-conditioning,” Baker said. “We can undo the fear.”

Baker will measure brainwaves before and after the treatment in order to determine the effectiveness of the treatment.

“They first answer questions for about 25 minutes about their attitudes towards what they’re afraid of, and then they’re randomly assigned to a treatment,” Baker said. “Hopefully the treatment will reduce their fear.”

The psychology professor has conducted several studies on this and said he has seen significant changes in people’s behavior toward things like mice.

“It can be dramatic,” he said. “I’ve seen instances where someone who jumped on a chair when they saw a mouse was willing to pet the mouse after a half-hour of treatment.”

Scientists do not yet know why these treatments work, Baker said.

“We don’t have a good answer why,” he said. “The first question is does it work.”

For more information about the study, contact Baker at or call 718-997-3242.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

Updated 10:28 am, October 12, 2011
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