Presentation and Potential Detection of Generalization

In my preparation for my honors colloquium presentation, I conducted some analyses which augur relationships I have yet to consider.

I mentioned in a previous post my intrigue with people’s differential reactions to the test phase. As I sit and observe participants’ real-time expectancies, I’ve noticed some interesting individual patterns. With the new analyses I ran, now I have some data to back up what I’ve observed. It seems like my data show evidence of a key phenomenon in the anxiety disorders: generalization.

Stimulus generalization occurs when a fear become generalized to neutral stimuli which resemble the CS+ but are never themselves associated with the naturally aversive US. Generalization is a process which seems to maintain generalized anxiety disorder (surprise!) and panic disorder, in particular. People with generalized anxiety disorder have been shown to have less tolerance for ambiguity and this is likely connected to the proclivity to generalize (Lissek, 2012). This idea connects to my study, in which participants know that only one stimulus, the CS+, is associated with the presentation of aversive stimuli. They know that the CS-, on the other hand, does not. Still, I have seen that many participants are still “unsure” or “confident” that they will receive an aversive stimulus presentation in the context of the CS-. Skin conductance data corroborates this anecdotal finding: although one would expect low physiological reactivity to the safe CS-, what we see is relatively high reactivity, albeit significantly lower than that in the context of the CS+.

You can see this for yourself in the chart below where the y-axis represents reactivity, the blue bar represents the CS-, and the green bar represents the CS+. I have no doubt that my wealth of self-report data will tell us a fuller story of why individuals in my study are generalizing their fear to the safety cue.



Lissek, S. (2012). Toward an account of clinical anxiety predicated on basic, neurally-mapped mechanisms of Pavlovian fear-learning: The case for conditioned overgeneralization. Depression and Anxiety, 29(4), 257-293.

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