Pre-COVID-19 fear conditioning responses predict COVID-19-related anxiety: evidence from an exploratory study

Christopher Hunt, Ryan D Webler, Abigail Emich, Kimberly Fhong, Jenna Hiljus, Shmuel Lissek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background and Objectives: Fear conditioning represents the prevailing model by which organisms acquire novel threat contingencies. However, little work has been devoted to linking laboratory measures of fear conditioning to the development of real-world threat responses. To fill this gap, the present study explored whether individual differences in a laboratory-based fear conditioning measure could predict levels of COVID-19-related anxiety and avoidance assessed during the first month of the pandemic. Design and Method: Forty-eight undergraduate students who had previously participated in two fear conditioning experiments prior to COVID-19 completed a survey assessing COVID-19 anxiety and avoidance. The fear conditioning experiment involved learning to discriminate between a shape contingently associated with mild electric shock (CS+) and two other shapes that were not (CS-). Results: Increased subjective anxiety to our laboratory CS+ prior to the pandemic predicted heightened COVID-19 anxiety. Follow-up analyses revealed that participants with high COVID-19 anxiety exhibited increased anxiety to CS+ during the final experimental block relative to participants with low COVID-19 anxiety. Conclusions: Findings from this exploratory study tentatively implicate fear conditioning in the development of real-world fear responses and underscore the importance of investigating laboratory fear conditioning as a predictor of anxiety responses to real-world threats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)547-556
Number of pages10
JournalAnxiety, Stress and Coping
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • COVID-19
  • anxiety
  • avoidance
  • fear conditioning
  • longitudinal

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


Dive into the research topics of 'Pre-COVID-19 fear conditioning responses predict COVID-19-related anxiety: evidence from an exploratory study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this