Though generalization of conditioned fear has been implicated as a central feature of pathological anxiety, surprisingly little is known about the psychobiology of this learning phenomenon in humans. Whereas animal work has frequently applied methods to examine generalization gradients to study the gradual weakening of the conditioned-fear response as the test stimulus increasingly differs from the conditioned stimulus (CS), to our knowledge no psychobiological studies of such gradients have been conducted in humans over the last 40 years. The current effort validates an updated generalization paradigm incorporating more recent methods for the objective measurement of anxiety (fear-potentiated startle). The paradigm employs 10, quasi-randomly presented, rings of gradually increasing size with extremes serving as CS+ and CS-. The eight rings of intermediary size serve as generalization stimuli (GSs) and create a continuum-of-similarity from CS+ to CS-. Both startle data and online self-report ratings demonstrate continuous decreases in generalization as the presented stimulus becomes less similar to the CS+. The current paradigm represents an updated and efficacious tool with which to study fear generalization-a central, yet understudied conditioning-correlate of pathologic anxiety.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health.
- Anxiety disorders
- Fear-potentiated startle
- Stimulus generalization