Fear generalization: A side effect of failing to perceptually discriminate?
The spread of fear called fear generalization is central to anxiety disorders as fear does not remain specific but generalizes to a broad set of stimuli, resulting in a snowballing of symptoms. Despite generalization being a well-established phenomenon, the precise mechanisms underlying the spreading of fear remain unclear, rendering its treatment a challenging endeavor. The project aims to investigate the relationship between perceptual discrimination and the extent of fear generalization. It naturally builds on my previous work demonstrating that fear generalization can be experimentally induced through Pavlovian learning processes, and that both intra- and interindividual variations in perception strongly affect generalization. The combined assessment of perception and fear responses in a series of studies will enable us to investigate to which extent the generalization of fear across stimuli can be attributed to the misidentification of novel stimuli as the initial fear-evoking stimulus. These effects will be studied at both the self-report level as well as the psychophysiological level (e.g., skin conductance). This project has the potential to significantly increase our understanding of perceptual mechanisms driving the spreading of fear. Such knowledge will foster the development of person-tailored clinical practices to treat excessive fear.