Acute psychophysiological stress impairs human associative learning

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Abstract

Addiction is increasingly discussed as a disorder of associative learning processes, with both operant and classical conditioning contributing to the development of maladaptive habits. Stress has long been known to promote drug taking and relapse and has further been shown to shift behavior from goal-directed actions towards more habitual ones. However, it remains to be investigated how acute stress may influence simple associative learning processes that occur before a habit can be established. In the present study, healthy young adults were exposed to either acute stress or a control condition half an hour before performing simple classical and operant conditioning tasks. Psychophysiological measures confirmed successful stress induction. Results of the operant conditioning task revealed reduced instrumental responding under delayed acute stress that resembled behavioral responses to lower levels of reward. The classical conditioning experiment revealed successful conditioning in both experimental groups; however, explicit knowledge of conditioning as indicated by stimulus ratings differentiated the stress and control groups. These findings suggest that operant and classical conditioning are differentially influenced by the delayed effects of acute stress with important implications for the understanding of how new habitual behaviors are initially established.

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