Fearing shades of grey: individual differences in fear responding towards generalisation stimuli

Individual differences in fear generalisation have been proposed to play a role in the aetiology and/or maintenance of anxiety disorders, but few data are available to directly support that claim. The research that is available has focused mostly on generalisation of peripheral and central physiological fear responses. Far less is known about the generalisation of avoidance, the behavioural component of fear. In two experiments, we evaluated how neuroticism, a known vulnerability factor for anxiety, modulates an array of fear responses, including avoidance tendencies, towards generalisation stimuli (GS). Participants underwent differential fear conditioning, in which one conditioned stimulus (CS+) was repeatedly paired with an aversive outcome (shock; unconditioned stimulus, US), whereas another was not (CS−). Fear generalisation was observed across measures in Experiment 1 (US expectancy and evaluative ratings) and Experiment 2 (US expectancy, evaluative ratings, skin conductance, startle responses, safety behaviours), with overall highest responding to the CS+, lowest to the CS− and intermediate responding to the GSs. Neuroticism had very little impact on fear generalisation (but did affect GS recognition rates in Experiment 1), in line with the idea that fear generalisation is largely an adaptive process.