No influence of threat uncertainty on fear generalization

Asimina Aslanidou*, Marta Andreatta, Alex H.K. Wong, Matthias J. Wieser

*Corresponding author for this work

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Fear overgeneralization and perceived uncertainty about future outcomes have been suggested as risk factors for clinical anxiety. However, little is known regarding how they influence each other. In this study, we investigated whether different levels of threat uncertainty influence fear generalization. Three groups of healthy participants underwent a differential fear conditioning protocol followed by a generalization test. All groups learned to associate one female face (conditioned stimulus, CS+) with a female scream (unconditioned stimulus, US), whereas the other face (CS−) was not associated with the scream. In order to manipulate threat uncertainty, one group (low uncertainty, n = 26) received 80%, the second group (moderate uncertainty, n = 32) received 60%, and the third group (high uncertainty, n = 30) 40% CS-US contingency. In the generalization test, all groups saw CS+ and CS− again along with four morphs resembling the CSs in steps of 20%. Subjective (expectancy, valence, and arousal ratings), psychophysiological (skin conductance response, SCR), and visuocortical (steady-state visual evoked potentials, ssVEPs) indices of fear were registered. Participants expected the US according to their reinforcement schedules and the discriminative responses to CS+/CS− increased with more uncertainty in skin conductance. However, acquisition of conditioned fear was not evident in ssVEPs. During the generalization test, we found no effect of threat uncertainty in any of the measured variables, but the strength of generalization for threat expectancy ratings was positively correlated with dispositional intolerance of uncertainty. This study suggests that mere threat uncertainty does not modulate fear generalization.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere14423
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024

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© 2023 The Authors. Psychophysiology published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Society for Psychophysiological Research.

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