Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms Are Associated With Heightened Avoidance of Low-Probability, High-Aversion Threats: A Preliminary Test of the Improbable-Catastrophe Hypothesis

Christopher Hunt, Nikki Degeneffe, Johanna Bixby, Shmuel Lissek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Although symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) may vary markedly, they often involve a fear of consequences that are both catastrophic and highly improbable (e.g., contracting HIV from a doorknob). Accordingly, a heightened sensitivity to what we refer to as improbable catastrophes may represent an underlying feature of OCD, yet this possibility awaits experimental validation. To fill this gap, 78 undergraduates with wide-ranging levels of OCD symptom severity completed a fear-conditioning paradigm designed to elicit varying degrees of perceived threat probability/aversiveness to test whether OCD symptoms predict heightened reactivity to unlikely, high-aversion threats. Consistent with predictions, participants with higher OCD symptoms were more avoidant of low-probability, high-aversion threats and also exhibited greater threat expectancy and physiological reactivity to more improbable threats in general. These findings implicate excessive avoidance of improbable catastrophes and heightened reactivity to unlikely threats more generally as underlying features of OCD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)514-533
Number of pages20
JournalClinical Psychological Science
Volume10
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 10 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.

Keywords

  • avoidance
  • decision-making
  • fear conditioning
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • threat overestimation

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