Generalization of appetitive conditioned responses.Psychophysiology. 2019 Sep; 56(9):e13397.P
A stimulus (conditioned stimulus, CS) associated with an appetitive unconditioned stimulus (US) acquires positive properties and elicits appetitive conditioned responses (CR). Such associative learning has been examined extensively in animals with food as the US, and results are used to explain psychopathologies (e.g., substance-related disorders or obesity). Human studies on appetitive conditioning exist, too, but we still know little about generalization processes. Understanding these processes may explain why stimuli not associated with a drug, for instance, can elicit craving. Forty-seven hungry participants underwent an appetitive conditioning protocol during which one of two circles with different diameters (CS+) became associated with an appetitive US (chocolate or salty pretzel, according to participants' preference) but never the other circle (CS-). During generalization, US were delivered twice and the two CS were presented again plus four circles (generalization stimuli, GS) with gradually increasing diameters from CS- to CS+. We found successful appetitive conditioning as reflected in appetitive subjective ratings (positive valence, higher contingency) and physiological responses (startle attenuation and larger skin conductance responses) to CS+ versus CS-, and, importantly, both measures confirmed generalization as indicated by generalization gradients. Small changes in CS-US contingency during generalization may have weakened generalization processes on the physiological level. Considering that appetitive conditioned responses can be generalized to non-US-associated stimuli, a next important step would be to investigate risk factors that mediate overgeneralization.