Generalisation of threat expectancy increases with time

Arne Leer*, Dieuwke Sevenster, Miriam J. J. Lommen

*Corresponding author for this work

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1 Citation (Scopus)
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Excessive fear generalisation is a feature characteristic of clinical anxiety and has been linked to its aetiology. Previous animal studies have shown that the mere passage of time increases fear generalisation and that brief exposure to training cues prior to long-term testing reverses this effect. The current study examined these phenomena in humans. Healthy participants learned the relationship between the presentation of a picture of a neutral male face and the delivery of a mild shock. One group was immediately tested with a novel picture of a somewhat different male face (generalisation test). Another group was tested one week later. A third group was also tested one week later and was additionally exposed to the training picture prior to testing. During picture presentations, shock-expectancy ratings were obtained as a measure of fear. Fear generalisation increased from the immediate test to the 1-week follow-up test. This result could not be attributed to level of neuroticism or a general increase in fear (incubation). Furthermore, the time-dependent increase in fear generalisation vanished following brief exposure to the training picture. Results indicate that human fear generalisation is a temporally dynamic process and that memory for stimulus details can be re-established following a reminder treatment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1067-1075
Number of pages9
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number5
Early online date27-Sep-2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Anxiety disorder
  • human fear conditioning
  • stimulus generalisation
  • memory precision

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