A parametric study of fear generalization to faces and non-face objects: relationship to discrimination thresholds
Boeke, Emily A.
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CitationHolt, Daphne J., Emily A. Boeke, Rick P. F. Wolthusen, Shahin Nasr, Mohammed R. Milad, and Roger B. H. Tootell. 2014. “A parametric study of fear generalization to faces and non-face objects: relationship to discrimination thresholds.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (1): 624. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00624. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00624.
AbstractFear generalization is the production of fear responses to a stimulus that is similar—but not identical—to a threatening stimulus. Although prior studies have found that fear generalization magnitudes are qualitatively related to the degree of perceptual similarity to the threatening stimulus, the precise relationship between these two functions has not been measured systematically. Also, it remains unknown whether fear generalization mechanisms differ for social and non-social information. To examine these questions, we measured perceptual discrimination and fear generalization in the same subjects, using images of human faces and non-face control stimuli (“blobs”) that were perceptually matched to the faces. First, each subject’s ability to discriminate between pairs of faces or blobs was measured. Each subject then underwent a Pavlovian fear conditioning procedure, in which each of the paired conditioned stimuli (CS) were either followed (CS+) or not followed (CS−) by a shock. Skin conductance responses (SCRs) were also measured. Subjects were then presented with the CS+, CS− and five levels of a CS+-to-CS− morph continuum between the paired stimuli, which were identified based on individual discrimination thresholds. Finally, subjects rated the likelihood that each stimulus had been followed by a shock. Subjects showed both autonomic (SCR-based) and conscious (ratings-based) fear responses to morphs that they could not discriminate from the CS+ (generalization). For both faces and non-face objects, fear generalization was not found above discrimination thresholds. However, subjects exhibited greater fear generalization in the shock likelihood ratings compared to the SCRs, particularly for faces. These findings reveal that autonomic threat detection mechanisms in humans are highly sensitive to small perceptual differences between stimuli. Also, the conscious evaluation of threat shows broader generalization than autonomic responses, biased towards labeling a stimulus as threatening.
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