Ignorance is Bliss: Increasing Predictability Increases Fear Generalization in Individuals With Higher Neuroticism
Garcia, Natalia Maria
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Fear generalization is a key player in understanding why some individuals feel unsafe in objectively non-threatening situations. Although fear is adaptive, it can persist when conditioned fear responses spread to similar but innocuous stimuli, leading to a proliferation of danger cues. Key constructs that may influence fear generalization are neuroticism, a personality trait associated with increased susceptibility to negative reactions (Barlow, Sauer-Zavala, Carl, Bullis, & Ellard, 2013), and unpredictability, a state of lacking foreknowledge about the likelihood of future aversive outcomes, which has been associated with increased psychological and physiological stress (e.g., Grillon, Baas, Cornwell, & Johnson, 2006). Undergraduates (N = 129) with varying degrees of neuroticism were randomized to high and low predictability conditions prior to fear acquisition. A fear generalization task measured online risk appraisals and attentional bias on a modified dot-probe paradigm in response to ambiguous stimuli morphed on a continuum between conditioned danger and safety cues. A go/no-go task measured inhibitory control to examine its relationship with fear generalization. For those in the high predictability condition, individuals with higher neuroticism reported higher online risk ratings and increased attentional bias toward highly ambiguous stimuli. When ambiguous stimuli approached safety, these same individuals reported lower online risk ratings and increased attentional bias towards control stimuli. Fear generalization and response inhibition were not strongly correlated. Overall, increasing predictability information backfired for individuals with higher neuroticism in that increased fear of ambiguous stimuli. Predictability information may be iatrogenic when neuroticism is high and threat is ambiguous.
- Psychology