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Factoring in fear: what scares us most?

Maybe you’ve seen a ghost, or been told the house in this picture is haunted, or watched enough scary movies to associate houses like this with spooks.

But which of these three is the most likely to scare you away? A study published early this week in PLOS ONE suggests any of the three could keep you from stepping in.

Fear is a conditioned response, meaning that we learn to be afraid through a variety of mechanisms, including past experiences, direct instruction, and learned associations. There’s little evidence, though, to show whether one kind of conditioning is stronger than the other.

The authors of this study addressed this question by investigating whether people avoided threats differently depending on how they had learned about them: by direct exposure to the threat, verbal instruction about the threat, or a ‘derived generalization’ that they learned to associate with the threat.

In the first case, participants were trained to associate circles of specific colors with mild electric shocks, a direct exposure to the “threat”. A second group of participants was told verbally that when circles of specific colors appeared on a screen, they would receive a mild shock. A third group of participants were first trained to associate nonsense words with circles of specific colors, and then tested for how strongly they associated the words with the possibility of a shock. Participants were then informed that if they pressed a certain button in response to seeing a color associated with shock, they could avert the unpleasant experience. The study found that, regardless of how the participants had learned to associate the colors or words with the shock, all three groups avoided the unpleasant experience to the same extent.

However, the researchers found differences in the avoidance behavior of groups during the learning period. For example, they found that people who received a verbal warning that certain colors would cause shocks rated the probability of a shock higher in the last phase than the group that had made ‘derived associations’ between words, circles and the possibility of a shock. Why these differences occurred wasn’t clear from this study, the researchers say, but their observations do imply that verbal warning can have a powerful effect on behavior.  Their results may also point to ways that unpleasantness and fear can be associated with certain activities more strongly (or weakly).

Fear conditioning is useful when making decisions about, say, whether to enter a spooky building, but extreme forms of avoidance can lead to severe clinical conditions like anxiety disorders that can hinder day-to-day activities. Previous research shows that anxiety disorders tend to be associated with stronger fear conditioning, and direct contact with an unpleasant event isn’t necessarily required for this conditioning to grow stronger. For example, people with social anxiety disorder tend to avoid large gatherings even though their experience of these may be fairly limited. Studies such as this one could help understand how we learn to avoid stimuli that are perceived as unpleasant even in the absence of repeated exposure, and perhaps eventually point to ways that we could overcome some fears.

Citation: Dymond S, Schlund MW, Roche B, De Houwer J, Freegard GP (2012) Safe From Harm: Learned, Instructed, and Symbolic Generalization Pathways of Human Threat-Avoidance. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47539. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047539 

Image Credit: wilsx4 on Flickr CC-by license

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