Perceptual and conceptual similarities facilitate the generalization of instructed fear

Bennett, Marc and Vervoort, Ellen and Boddez, Yannick and Hermans, Dirk and Baeyens, Frank
Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 48: 149—155, 2015
Background and objectives

Learned fear can generalize to neutral events due their perceptual and conceptual similarity with threat relevant stimuli. This study simultaneously examined these forms of generalization to model the expansion of fear in anxiety disorders.


First, artificial categories involving sounds, nonsense words and animal-like objects were established. Next, the words from one category were paired with threatening information while the words from the other category were paired with safety information. Lastly, we examined if fear generalized to (i) the conceptually related animal-like objects and (ii) other animal like-objects that were perceptually similar. This was measured using behavioral avoidance, US expectancy ratings and self-reported stimulus valence.


Animal-like objects conceptually connected to the aversive words evoked heightened fear. Perceptual variants of these animal-like objects also elicit fear.


Future research would benefit from the use of online-US expectancy ratings and physiological measures of fear.


Investigating the role of both perceptual and conceptual fear generalization is important to better understand the etiology of anxiety disorders symptoms.