ISSN 2043-8087
Journal of Experimental Psychopathology
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Can threat information bias fear learning? Some tentative results and methodological considerations

  Gaëtan Mertens - Ghent University
  Dries Bostyn - Ghent University
  Jan De Houwer - Ghent University

In Press (Uncorrected Proof), Pages 1-20


Whereas it is widely recognized that both verbal threat information and stimulus pairings can install strong and persistent fear, few studies have addressed the interaction between these two pathways of fear. According to the expectancy bias of Davey (1992, 1997), verbal information can install expectancy biases for aversive events that can result in facilitated fear learning through stimulus pairings and can delay extinction of fear. However, these predictions of the expectancy bias account have not been explored fully. Following up on two earlier studies (Field & Storksen-Coulson, 2007; Ugland, Dyson, & Field, 2013), we investigated the impact of prior threat information on fear acquisition, extinction and reinstatement. To this aim, 77 participants received instructions about four unfamiliar animals, two of which that were described as dangerous whereas the other two were described as harmless. One animal of each pair was subsequently paired with an electrical stimulus according to either a continuous or a partial reinforcement schedule. Our results indicated that threat information resulted in stronger fear responses prior to fear conditioning and in delayed extinction of fear, especially in the partial reinforcement condition. We argue that these results are in line with the expectancy bias model.

Table of Contents

Correspondence to
dr. Gaëtan Mertens

Instructions; Bias; Threat; Fear Conditioning; Extinction; Reinstatement; Expectancies; Startle Response; Skin Conductance Response

Received 29 Oct 2016; Revised 13 Jul 2017; Accepted 13 Jul 2017; In Press 22 Jul 2017

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