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Open Access Publications from the University of California

We have nothing to fear but everything: A surprising effect of training set diversity on the generalization of learned fear


When an otherwise neutral stimulus signals an aversive event, we learn to use that information to avoid negative outcomes. Extended too broadly, however, fear learning can become maladaptive. In concept learning, people tend to restrict generalization to the narrowest category consistent with the learning set (Xu & Tenenbaum, 2007). We tested whether this pattern extends to fear conditioning. Shocks were associated with bananas (basic level group) or with fruit (superordinate group), but never with vegetables (both). In generalization, both groups were shown novel fruits and vegetables (no shocks). Surprisingly, while the basic level group’s Skin Conductance Response (SCR) reliably diminished from acquisition to generalization, the superordinate group’s SCR did not. Further, SCR to vegetables was greater in generalization for the superordinate group, suggesting that superordinate training encourages overgeneralizing threat beyond what concept learning models would predict. These novel findings have implications for both learning models and anxiety disorders (e.g., PTSD).

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