Maladaptive behavioral consequences of conditioned fear-generalization: A pronounced, yet sparsely studied, feature of anxiety pathology

Brian van Meurs, Nicole Wiggert, Isaac Wicker, Shmuel Lissek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Fear-conditioning experiments in the anxiety disorders focus almost exclusively on passive-emotional, Pavlovian conditioning, rather than active-behavioral, instrumental conditioning. Paradigms eliciting both types of conditioning are needed to study maladaptive, instrumental behaviors resulting from Pavlovian abnormalities found in clinical anxiety. One such Pavlovian abnormality is generalization of fear from a conditioned danger-cue (CS+) to resembling stimuli. Though lab-based findings repeatedly link overgeneralized Pavlovian-fear to clinical anxiety, no study assesses the degree to which Pavlovian overgeneralization corresponds with maladaptive, overgeneralized instrumental-avoidance. The current effort fills this gap by validating a novel fear-potentiated startle paradigm including Pavlovian and instrumental components. The paradigm is embedded in a computer game during which shapes appear on the screen. One shape paired with electric-shock serves as CS+, and other resembling shapes, presented in the absence of shock, serve as generalization stimuli (GSs). During the game, participants choose whether to behaviorally avoid shock at the cost of poorer performance. Avoidance during CS+ is considered adaptive because shock is a real possibility. By contrast, avoidance during GSs is considered maladaptive because shock is not a realistic prospect and thus unnecessarily compromises performance. Results indicate significant Pavlovian-instrumental relations, with greater generalization of Pavlovian fear associated with overgeneralization of maladaptive instrumental-avoidance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-37
Number of pages9
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Anxiety disorders
  • Behavioral-avoidance
  • Fear-potentiated startle
  • Generalization
  • Instrumental conditioning
  • Pavlovian fear-conditioning


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