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Cogn Emot. 2016;30(2):340-52. doi: 10.1080/02699931.2014.1000831. Epub 2015 Feb 3.

Generalisation of fear and avoidance along a semantic continuum.

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a Department of Psychology , Maynooth University , Maynooth , Co. Kildare , Ireland.
b Department of Psychology , Swansea University , Swansea , UK.
c Center for the Psychology of Learning and Experimental Psychopathology , University of Leuven , Leuven , Belgium.


Directly conditioned fear and avoidance readily generalises to dissimilar but conceptually related stimuli. Here, for the first time, we examined the conceptual/semantic generalisation of both fear and avoidance using real words (synonyms). Participants were first exposed to a differential fear conditioning procedure in which one word (e.g., "broth"; CS+) was followed with brief electric shock [unconditioned stimulus (US)] and another was not (e.g., "assist"; CS-). Next, an instrumental conditioning phase taught avoidance in the presence the CS+ but not the CS-. During generalisation testing, synonyms of the CS+ (e.g., "soup"; GCS+) and CS- (e.g., "help"; GCS-) were presented in the absence of shock. Conditioned fear and avoidance, measured via skin conductance responses, behavioural avoidance and US expectancy ratings, generalised to the semantically related, but not to the semantically unrelated, synonyms. Findings have implications for how natural language categories and concepts mediate the expansion of fear and avoidance repertoires in clinical contexts.


Avoidance; Fear conditioning; Generalisation; Semantic generalisation

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