Fear generalization gradients in visuospatial attention.
Fear learning can be adaptively advantageous, but only if the learning is integrated with higher-order cognitive processes that impact goal-directed behaviors. Recent work has demonstrated generalization (i.e., transfer) of conditioned fear across perceptual dimensions and conceptual categories, but it is not clear how fear generalization influences other cognitive processes. The current study investigated how associative fear learning impacts higher-order visuospatial attention, specifically in terms of attentional bias toward generalized threats (i.e., the heightened assessment of potentially dangerous stimuli). We combined discriminative fear conditioning of color stimuli with a subsequent visual search task, in which targets and distractors were presented inside colored circles that varied in perceptual similarity to the fear-conditioned color. Skin conductance responses validated the fear-conditioning manipulation. Search response times indicated that attention was preferentially deployed not just to the specific fear-conditioned color, but also to similar colors that were never paired with the aversive shock. Furthermore, this attentional bias decreased continuously and symmetrically from the fear-conditioned value along the color spectrum, indicating a generalization gradient based on perceptual similarity. These results support functional accounts of fear learning that promote broad, defensive generalization of attentional bias toward threat. (PsycINFO Database Record
Dowd, EW; Mitroff, SR; LaBar, KS
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