Threat Intensity Widens Fear Generalization Gradients

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Abstract

Research in nonhuman animals reveals threat-sensitive generalization of defensive behavior that favors widespread generalization when threat intensity is high and limited generalization (i.e., specificity) when threat intensity is low. Here, we used Pavlovian fear conditioning to systematically investigate whether threat intensity widens behavioral generalization gradients to stimuli that decreasingly resemble a learned threat cue. Using a between-subjects design, volunteers underwent fear conditioning with a tone paired with either a high-intensity or low-intensity aversive stimulus prior to a test of fear generalization to novel tones. Results showed no effect of threat intensity on initial acquisition of conditioned fear. However, volunteers who underwent fear conditioning with a high-intensity aversive stimulus exhibited widespread generalization of autonomic arousal (skin conductance responses) as compared to volunteers who received a low-intensity aversive stimulus. These results show a transition from normal (selective) to overgeneralized fear as threat intensity increases, and have implications for understanding overgeneralization characteristic of trauma- and stress-related disorders.

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