Category: Adult Anxiety - Social


Social Anxiety and Fear Generalization

Friday, November 17
10:15 AM - 11:45 AM
Location: Sapphire Ballroom M & N, Level 4, Sapphire Level

Keywords: Social Anxiety | Fear
Presentation Type: Symposium

Fear conditioning is recognized as an important contributor to the onset and maintenance of anxiety. Individuals acquire fear toward neutral stimuli (conditioned stimuli, CS+) that are associated with aversive experiences (US), as well as toward stimuli (GS) that resemble the CS+ (generalization). Enhanced fear acquisition and generalization are hypothesized to account for the development of anxiety disorders. Extant research suggests that individuals with social anxiety disorder (SAD) only show enhanced acquisition toward socially relevant (e.g., hostile faces, critical comments) but not irrelevant unconditioned stimuli (e.g., shocks, odors). Little support has been found for fear generalization in socially anxious individuals; however, researchers have not examined the effects of more naturalistic unconditioned stimuli. Accordingly, the current study examined acquisition and generalization in participants across the social anxiety spectrum (n = 144) who underwent a fear acquisition task in which different faces (CS+) were presented along with hostile (US) or neutral expressions and statements. Before and after acquisition, fear generalization was measured via responses to a series of facial stimuli that morphed from hostile to neutral (GSs).  We found main effects of acquisition and generalization across implicit (i.e., reaction time) and explicit (i.e., contingency awareness) measures. In addition, participants with high social anxiety displayed enhanced acquisition but less generalization to morphed composites on implicit, but not explicit measures. In sum, these results suggest that high social anxiety is characterized by enhanced acquisition to naturalistic social threat stimuli and discrimination from related stimuli on an implicit level. Discussion will place these results in the context of recent mixed evidence on fear generalization, notably with some studies also finding enhanced discrimination in individuals with high trait anxiety. The study has been preregistered with Open Science Framework under name of the first author and the same title.

Klint Fung

Graduate student
University of British Columbia


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Social Anxiety and Fear Generalization

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