During exposure therapy, patients are encouraged to approach the feared stimulus, so they can experience that this stimulus is not followed by the anticipated aversive outcome. However, patients might treat the absence of the aversive outcome as an ‘exception to the rule’. This could hamper the generalization of fear reduction when the patient is confronted with similar stimuli not used in therapy. We examined the effect of providing information about the typicality of the extinction stimulus on the generalization of extinction to a new but similar stimulus.
In a differential fear conditioning procedure, an animal-like figure was paired with a brief electric shock to the wrist. In a subsequent extinction phase, a different but perceptually similar animal-like figure was presented without the shock. Before testing the generalization of extinction with a third animal-like figure, participants were either instructed that the extinction stimulus was a typical or an atypical member of the animal family.
The typicality instruction effectively impacted the generalization of extinction; the third animal-like figure elicited lower shock expectancies in the typical relative to the atypical group.
Skin conductance data mirrored these results, but did not reach significance.
These findings suggest that verbal information about stimulus typicality can be a promising adjunctive to standard exposure treatments.