Further characterization of relief dynamics in the conditioning and generalization of avoidance: Effects of distress tolerance and intolerance of uncertainty

Consuelo San Martín, Bart Jacobs, Bram Vervliet*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Scopus citations

Abstract

Avoidance behaviors are central to the anxiety disorders and implicated in many other forms of psychopathology, but the reinforcing mechanism of avoidance remains largely elusive. It has been suggested that subjective relief during successful omission of threat may serve as a reinforcer and contribute to the development of excessive avoidance. Also, relatively little is known about how avoidance behaviors generalize and what the role is of relief in generalization. The purpose of this experiment was three-fold: (1) to investigate the influence of anxiety-traits on the dynamics of relief during avoidance learning, (2) to characterize the dynamics of relief during avoidance generalization, and (3) to investigate the generalization of avoidance behavior over a dimension of avoidability. In a large sample of 101 participants, two lamp colors (CS+) were first associated with an aversive electrical stimulation (US), while a third color was not (CS-). Next, clicking a button during one CS + could effectively avoid the US (CS + av), but not during the other (CS + unav). Finally, avoidance generalization was tested via button clicks during morphed colors between CS + av and CS + unav (avoidability dimension), and to morphed colors between CS + av and CS- (safety dimension). Throughout the experiment, a relief rating scale appeared whenever a lamp color was not followed by the US. Results revealed that anxiety traits (distress tolerance and intolerance of uncertainty) were associated with higher levels of avoidance and subjective relief. In addition, gradients of avoidance generalization and relief were observed over dimensions of avoidability (CS + av → CS + unav) and safety (CS + av → CS-). Together, these results suggest a role for excessive relief in the development and generalization of maladaptive avoidance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103526
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Volume124
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Elsevier Ltd

Keywords

  • Avoidance
  • Distress tolerance
  • Fear conditioning
  • Generalization
  • Relief

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