The “Weaker” Conditioning Paradigm: Differences in Fear Learning and its Relationship with Anxiety

Yiling Ho (2013). The “Weaker” Conditioning Paradigm: Differences in Fear Learning and its Relationship with Anxiety Professional Doctorate, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland.

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Author Yiling Ho
Thesis Title The “Weaker” Conditioning Paradigm: Differences in Fear Learning and its Relationship with Anxiety
School, Centre or Institute School of Psychology
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2013-11-03
Thesis type Professional Doctorate
Supervisor Professor Ottmar V. Lipp
Total pages 151
Language eng
Subjects 17 Psychology and Cognitive Sciences
170106 Health, Clinical and Counselling Psychology
170101 Biological Psychology (Neuropsychology, Psychopharmacology, Physiological Psychology)
Abstract/Summary Most fear learning studies relied on “strong” conditioning procedures with a 100% schedule of conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus (US) pairings, which often eliminated inter-individual or inter-stimulus differences and resulted in homogenous fear learning. However, investigating inter-individual or inter-stimulus differences would enable a better understanding of the way in which new associations between cues and aversive threats were learned and maintained. It was hoped that by enhancing the sensitivity of conditioning paradigms to fear learning differences, the study of the psychobiology of anxiety disorders could be further developed. In the present study, two “weaker” conditioning experiments with a 50% and a 33% reinforcement schedule were used. In the 50% conditioning paradigm, two CSs (CS+; e.g., snake, fish) were paired with a shock US on half their presentations and two other CSs (CS-; e.g., spider, bird) were presented alone, whereas in the 33% conditioning experiment, two CSs were paired with a shock US one third of the time, with two other CSs presented alone. Inter-stimulus differences were investigated by comparing conditioning responses to fear relevant (snake, spider) and non-fear relevant (fish, bird) CSs whereas self-report questionnaires that tapped different aspects of the anxiety spectrum (anxious arousal, depression, stress, worry) were used to assess inter-individual differences. Apart from excitatory conditioning, safety learning responses measured by electrodermal responses to CS- were also examined. Overall, the 50% conditioning paradigm supported differential electrodermal fear conditioning. Differential conditioning was acquired faster to fear relevant CSs, supporting the theory that some stimuli might be more prepared to be associated with aversive outcomes. Evidence for inter-individual differences was weak and emerged only during the initial stages of fear acquisition. Consistent with previous studies, elevated levels of anxiety, worry and stress predicted larger differential conditioning whereas high levels of self-reported depression predicted less differential conditioning at acquisition. Further, the correlation between anxiety and depression with differential conditioning were sustained through extinction. Responses to CS- were most pronounced at the beginning of fear acquisition with limited inter-stimulus and inter-individual differences. No evidence of differential conditioning was present in the 33% conditioning paradigm. There were no significant inter-stimulus or inter-individual differences reported as well. The present findings supported the notion that the use of a “weaker” conditioning paradigm allowed for inter-stimulus and inter-individual differences in fear learning to emerge, although such effects would likely disappear if conditioning paradigms with lower than 50% reinforcement rates were used. Nonetheless, the inter-stimulus and inter-individual differences that were obtained in a non-clinical sample implied differences in susceptibility to fear learning. Further research in a larger or clinical sample would be required before firmer conclusions as to the relevance of the present findings for the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders could be drawn.
Keyword Fear learning
Anxiety disorders
Classical Conditioning
Individual differences

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Created: Sun, 03 Nov 2013, 22:17:21 EST by Yiling Ho on behalf of Faculty of Social & Behavioural Sciences