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Poster B5

The future is uncertain - The influence of threat uncertainty on fear generalization

Poster Session B - Sunday, April 14, 2024, 8:00 – 10:00 am EDT, Sheraton Hall ABC

Matthias Wieser1 (, Asimina Aslanidou1, Marta Andreatta2; 1Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2University of Tuebingen

Fear generalization seems altered in anxiety-related disorders, but underlying mechanisms remain unclear. We explored whether threat uncertainty and a threatening context but also intolerance of uncertainty as a personality trait influence fear generalization. The studies employed a differential threat conditioning paradigm with generalization test using two female faces as conditioned stimuli (CSs) and a 90 dB female scream as the unconditioned stimulus (US). For the generalization test, four morphs were created as generalized stimuli resembling the CSs in 20% increments. Participants’ fear responses were recorded by means of affective and US-expectancy ratings, skin conductance responses and steady-state visual evoked potentials. In Study 1 and 2, threat uncertainty was manipulated in three groups with different reinforcement schedules for the CS+. Results showed that despite successful acquisition, uncertainty did not affect fear generalization, but higher individual intolerance of uncertainty was associated with wider generalized responses in the US-expectancy. In Study 3, threat context was manipulated with two-minute presentations of the CSs against a gray background with different arrays of geometrical shapes representing either the safe (CTX-) or the threatening (CTX+) context. Only CS+ in CTX+ was reinforced. During acquisition, responses were generally heightened in CTX+, while affective ratings were not sensitive to the contextual information. Participants did not show differences in generalization, suggesting that threatening context did not significantly influence generalization. Overall, both studies suggest that threat uncertainty and context have limited direct influence on fear generalization, but they impact fear learning which can indirectly affect generalization.

Topic Area: EMOTION & SOCIAL: Emotional responding


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April 13–16  |  2024