Reducing Generalization of Conditioned Fear: Beneficial Impact of Fear Relevance and Feedback in Discrimination Training

Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021)
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Abstract

Anxiety patients over-generalize fear, possibly because of an incapacity to discriminate threat and safety signals. Discrimination trainings are promising approaches for reducing such fear over-generalization. Here we investigated the efficacy of a fear-relevant vs. a fear-irrelevant discrimination training on fear generalization and whether the effects are increased with feedback during training. Eighty participants underwent two fear acquisition blocks, during which one face, but not another face, was associated with a female scream. During two generalization blocks, both CSs plus four morphs were presented. Between these generalization blocks, half of the participants underwent a fear-relevant discrimination training with or without feedback and the other half a fear-irrelevant discrimination training with or without feedback. US expectancy, arousal, valence ratings, and skin conductance responses indicated successful fear acquisition. Importantly, fear-relevant vs. fear-irrelevant discrimination trainings and feedback vs. no feedback reduced generalization as reflected in US expectancy ratings independently from one another. No effects of training condition were found for arousal and valence ratings or SCR. In summary, this is a first indication that fear-relevant discrimination training and feedback can improve the discrimination between threat and safety signals in healthy individuals, at least for learning-related evaluations, but not evaluations of valence or arousal.

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