The spread of fear: Symbolic generalization mediates graded threat-avoidance in specific phobia

Dymond, Simon and Schlund, Michael W. and Roche, Bryan and Whelan, Robert (2014) The spread of fear: Symbolic generalization mediates graded threat-avoidance in specific phobia. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67 (2). pp. 247-259. ISSN 1747-0226

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Overgeneralization of fear and threat-avoidance represents a formidable barrier to successful clinical treatment of anxiety disorders. While stimulus generalization along quantifiable physical dimensions has been studied extensively, less consideration has been given to symbolic generalization, in which stimuli are indirectly and arbitrarily related. The present study examined whether the magnitude and extent of symbolic generalization of threat-avoidance and threat-beliefs differed between spiderphobic and nonphobic individuals. Initially, participants learned two sets of stimulus equivalence relations (A1 = B1 = C1; A2 = B2 = C2). Next, one cue (B1) was established as a conditioned stimulus (CS + ; threat) that signalled onset of spider images and prompted avoidance, and another cue (B2) was established as a CS– (safety cue) that signalled the absence of such images. Subsequent testing showed that phobics compared to nonphobics exhibited greater symbolic generalization of threatavoidance to threat cues A1 and C1 (indirect CS+ threat cues related via symmetry and equivalence, respectively), while all individuals showed nonavoidance to indirect safety cues A2 and C2. The enhanced symbolic generalization of threat-beliefs and avoidance behaviour observed in spider phobics warrants further investigation.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: Fear conditioning; Avoidance; Threat; Symbolic generalization; Pathway; Spider fear;
Academic Unit: Faculty of Science and Engineering > Psychology
Item ID: 6817
Identification Number: 10.1080/17470218.2013.800124
Depositing User: Dr. Bryan Roche
Date Deposited: 15 Jan 2016 14:47
Journal or Publication Title: Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Refereed: Yes

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