Attention avoidance of the threat conditioned stimulus during extinction increases physiological arousal generalisation and retention.Behav Res Ther. 2018 05; 104:51-61.BR
Exposure therapy is a key component of efficacious treatment for anxiety. Biases in the allocation of attention towards versus away from threat assessed prior to exposure-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioural therapy differentially predict treatment outcomes. However, it is unclear whether monitoring versus avoiding threat stimuli influences learning during exposure. Extinction paradigms are the experimental analogue of exposure therapy. Therefore, manipulating attention towards versus away from threat during extinction trials may shed light on the role of attention during exposure therapy. This study utilised a Pavlovian fear conditioning and extinction paradigm to examine whether directing attention towards versus away from the threat conditioned stimulus (CS+) related to differences in extinction, as indexed by skin conductance responses (SCR), CS evaluations and subjective measures of anxiety. Following a fear conditioning phase in which a dog image (CS+) was paired with an aversive tone unconditioned stimulus (US) and another dog image (CS-) was presented alone, 57 participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions during extinction in which both CSs were presented alone: monitor the CS+ (N = 19), avoid the CS+ and attend to another stimulus (N = 18), no attention manipulation control (N = 20). Eye movements were monitored for visual adherence to assigned location using horizontal electro-oculogram. In the context of the acquisition of differential conditioning and visual adherence during extinction, both active groups exhibited larger SCRs to the CS + relative to the CS- during the first extinction block compared to the control group, and the avoid group exhibited significantly larger SCRs on CS+ and CS- trials throughout the extinction phase compared to the other groups. The avoid group also exhibited less decline in SCRs to the CS+ during the extinction retest phase relative to the control group. No significant group differences were observed in between-phase CS evaluations and subjective anxiety ratings. Avoidance of threat conditioned stimuli may impair extinction learning and increase physiological arousal generalisation to safe stimuli.