An overall assessment of phobic fear requires not only a verbal self-report of fear but also an assessment of behavioral and physiological responses. Virtual reality can be used to simulate realistic (phobic) situations and therefore should be useful for inducing emotions in a controlled, standardized way. Verbal and physiological fear reactions were examined in 15 highly tunnel-fearful and 15 matched control participants in 3 virtual driving scenarios: an open environment, a partially open tunnel (gallery), and a closed tunnel. Highly tunnel-fearful participants were characterized by elevated fear responses specifically during tunnel drives as reflected in verbal fear ratings, heart rate reactions, and startle responses. Heart rate and fear ratings differentiated highly tunnel-fearful from control participants with an accuracy of 88% and 93%, respectively. Results indicate that virtual environments are valuable tools for the assessment of fear reactions and should be used in future experimental research.
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