Measuring Pavlovian appetitive conditioning in humans with the postauricular reflex.Psychophysiology. 2018 08; 55(8):e13073.P
Despite its evolutionary and clinical significance, appetitive conditioning has been rarely investigated in humans. It has been proposed that this discrepancy might stem from the difficulty in finding suitable appetitive stimuli that elicit strong physiological responses. However, this might also be due to a possible lack of sensitivity of the psychophysiological measures commonly used to index human appetitive conditioning. Here, we investigated whether the postauricular reflex-a vestigial muscle microreflex that is potentiated by pleasant stimuli relative to neutral and unpleasant stimuli-may provide a valid psychophysiological indicator of appetitive conditioning in humans. To this end, we used a delay differential appetitive conditioning procedure, in which a neutral stimulus was contingently paired with a pleasant odor (CS+), while another neutral stimulus was not associated with any odor (CS-). We measured the postauricular reflex, the startle eyeblink reflex, and skin conductance response (SCR) as learning indices. Taken together, our results indicate that the postauricular reflex was potentiated in response to the CS+ compared with the CS-, whereas this potentiation extinguished when the pleasant odor was no longer delivered. In contrast, we found no evidence for startle eyeblink reflex attenuation in response to the CS+ relative to the CS-, and no effect of appetitive conditioning was observed on SCR. These findings suggest that the postauricular reflex is a sensitive measure of human appetitive conditioning and constitutes a valuable tool for further shedding light on the basic mechanisms underlying emotional learning in humans.