Expectancy bias in a selective conditioning procedure: trait anxiety increases the threat value of a blocked stimulus.J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2012 Jun; 43(2):832-7.JB
BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES
In a blocking procedure, a single conditioned stimulus (CS) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US), such as electric shock, in the first stage. During the subsequent stage, the CS is presented together with a second CS and this compound is followed by the same US. Fear conditioning studies in non-human animals have demonstrated that fear responding to the added second CS typically remains low, despite its being paired with the US. Accordingly, the blocking procedure is well suited as a laboratory model for studying (deficits in) selective threat appraisal. The present study tested the relation between trait anxiety and blocking in human aversive conditioning.
Healthy participants filled in a trait anxiety questionnaire and underwent blocking treatment in the human aversive conditioning paradigm. Threat appraisal was measured through shock expectancy ratings and skin conductance.
As hypothesized, trait anxiety was positively associated with shock expectancy ratings to the blocked stimulus.
In skin conductance responding, no significant effects of stimulus type could be detected during blocking training or testing. The current study does not allow strong claims to be made regarding the theoretical process underlying the expectancy bias we observed.
The observed shock expectancy bias might be one of the mechanisms leading to non-specific fear in individuals at risk for developing anxiety disorders. A deficit in blocking, or a deficit in selective threat appraisal at the more general level, indeed results in fear becoming non-specific and disconnected from the most likely causes or predictors of danger.