Phylo- and Ontogenetic Fears and the Expectation of Danger: Differences Between Spider- and Flight-Phobic Subjects in Cognitive and Physiological Responses to Disorder-Specific Stimuli

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To compare specific phobias with an assumed phylogenetic or ontogenetic origin in responses to fear-relevant (FR) stimuli, 17 spider- and 17 flight-phobic participants were exposed to pictures of spiders, flight accidents, or mushrooms randomly followed by either a startling noise or nothing else. While both groups showed a disorder-specific expectancy bias, only spider-phobic participants exhibited a disorder-specific covariation bias. Spider-phobic participants also showed enhanced skin conductance responses (SCRs), event-related brain potentials (ERPs), and startle responses triggered by disorder-specific FR pictures while flight-phobic participants showed only disorder-specific enhanced SCRs. In sum, our direct comparison between ontogenetic and phylogenetic phobias revealed that the former is characterized by biased and enhanced responses triggered by disorder-specific FR stimuli presumably based on a biological preparedness.

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