Excessive avoidance behavior, in which an instrumental action prevents an upcoming aversive event, is a defining feature of anxiety disorders. Left unchecked, both fear and avoidance of potentially threatening stimuli may generalize to perceptually related stimuli and situations. The behavioral consequences of generalization mean that aversive learning experiences with specific threats may lead to the inference that classes of related stimuli are threatening, potentially dangerous, and need to be avoided, despite differences in physical form. Little is known however about avoidance generalization in humans and the learning pathways by which it may be transmitted. In the present study, we compared two pathways to avoidance—instructions and social observation—on subsequent generalization of avoidance behavior, fear expectancy and physiological arousal. Participants first learned that one cue was a danger cue (conditioned stimulus, CS+) and another was a safety cue (CS−). Groups were then either instructed that a simple avoidance response in the presence of the CS+ cancelled upcoming shock (instructed-learning group) or observed a short movie showing a demonstrator performing the avoidance response to prevent shock (observational-learning group). During generalization testing, danger and safety cues were presented along with generalization stimuli that parametrically varied in perceptual similarity to the CS+. Reinstatement of fear and avoidance was also tested. Findings demonstrate, for the first time, generalization of socially transmitted and instructed avoidance: both groups showed comparable generalization gradients in fear expectancy, avoidance behavior and arousal. Return of fear was evident, suggesting that generalized avoidance remains persistent following extinction testing. The utility of the present paradigm for research on avoidance generalization is discussed.
- Anxiety disorders
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Behavioral Neuroscience