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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Safety Signaling During Threat: An Investigation of Social Support Figures as Prepared Safety Stimuli

  • Author(s): Hornstein, Erica
  • Advisor(s): Eisenberger, Naomi I
  • et al.

The ability to learn about and identify cues that predict danger is critical for survival, allowing individuals to safely and efficiently traverse the world. The process by which this learning occurs, fear learning, has been well documented, and within this literature it has been demonstrated that certain stimuli are more readily associated with threat than others. Namely, prepared fear stimuli, stimuli that have historically threatened survival, are more readily associated with threat, leading to more exaggerated fear responses that are harder to extinguish. However, little work has been done to examine the parallel concept of prepared safety stimuli—stimuli that have historically promoted survival and thus are less readily associated with fear and inhibit the fear response. Social support figures, who provide protection, care, and resources, ultimately benefitting survival, are one likely category of prepared safety. The research outlined in this dissertation seeks, for the first time, to explore the role and function of social support as a prepared safety stimulus. To begin, Paper 1 develops a definition of prepared safety stimuli and then tests whether social support fulfills the parameters of these stimuli. Results revealed that social support stimuli are less readily associated with fear and inhibit the conditional fear response, indicating that social support is a category of prepared safety stimuli. Papers 2 and 3 built on these findings, and the effect of social support on fear learning processes was examined. Findings revealed that the presence of social support prevents the formation of fear associations during fear acquisition (Paper 2), and inhibits return of fear after fear extinction (Paper 3). Altogether, the results from this dissertation shed light on the properties of prepared safety stimuli in general, and social support stimuli in particular, and serve as a foundation for future exploration of these unique safety effects.

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