Generalization of human fear acquisition and extinction within a novel arbitrary stimulus category

Vervoort, Ellen and Vervliet, Bram and Bennett, Marc and Baeyens, Frank
PloS one, 9(5): e96569, 2014

Adaptive anxiety relies on a balance between the generalization of fear acquisition and fear extinction. Research on fear (extinction) generalization has focused mostly on perceptual similarity, thereby ignoring the importance of conceptual stimulus relations in humans. The present study used a laboratory procedure to create de novo conceptual categories of arbitrary stimuli and investigated fear and extinction generalization among these stimuli. A matching-to-sample task produced two four-member categories of abstract figures. Next, a member from one category was coupled with an aversive electrical stimulation, while a member from the other category was presented alone. As expected, conditioned fear responses generalized to the other members of the first category (skin conductance and online shock-expectancy). Subsequent extinction of the conditioned member also generalized to the other members. However, extinguishing a non-conditioned member failed to reduce fear of the conditioned member itself. We conclude that fears generalize readily across conceptually related stimuli, but that the degree of extinction generalization depends on the stimulus subjected to extinction.