The Role of Expectancy Violation in Extinction Learning: A Two-Day Online Fear Conditioning Study


Background. Exposure therapy is at the core of the treatment of pathological anxiety. While the inhibitory learning model proposes a framework for the mechanisms underlying exposure therapy, in particular expectancy violation, causal evidence for its assumptions remains elusive. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to provide evidence for the influence of expectancy violation on extinction retention by manipulating the magnitude of expectancy violation during extinction learning. Method. In total, 101 individuals completed a web-based fear conditioning protocol, consisting of a fear acquisition and extinction phase, as well as a spontaneous recovery and fear reinstatement test 24h later. To experimentally manipulate expectancy violation, participants were presented only with states of the conditioned stimulus that either weakly or strongly predicted the aversive outcome. Consequently, the absence of any aversive outcomes in the extinction phase resulted in low or high expectancy violation, respectively. Results. We found successful fear acquisition and manipulation of expectancy violation, which was associated with reduced threat ratings for the high compared to the low expectancy violation group directly after extinction learning. On Day 2, inhibitory CS-noUS associations could be retrieved for expectancy ratings, whereas there were no substantial group differences for threat ratings. Conclusion. These findings indicate that the magnitude of expectancy violation is related to the retrieval of conscious threat expectancies, but it is unclear how these changes translate to affective components (i.e., threat ratings) of the fear response and to symptoms of pathological anxiety.

Clinical Psychology in Europe, 5(2)