Can avoidance of potential threat be transmitted via description and inferences?

Avoidance of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and the situations or places that evoke them is an often-automatic feature of daily life. Sometimes, avoidance is helpful in allowing us to learn about potentially harmful situations (such as heeding a call and avoiding an oncoming car, for example), but for many people it can soon become the default way of coping with potential threat and lead to anxiety and depression

Although excessive avoidance lies at the heart of many forms of psychopathology, very little is known about the different psychological processes by which it may be acquired. Indeed, surprisingly little research has been conducted on the common observation that one need not directly experience something unpleasant in order to subsequently show avoidance. In other words, can avoidance be transmitted from person to person by descriptions and inferences?

New research by Dr Simon Dymond, Reader in Psychology at Swansea University, in collaboration with colleagues from USA, Ireland, and Belgium, has revealed for the first time that avoidance acquired indirectly via verbal instructions and cognitive inferences result in similar levels of behaviour and threat-beliefs to avoidance acquired after direct learning.

In their study, which was published in PLoS ONE, Dr Dymond and colleagues first undertook fear conditioning in which one stimulus (e.g. a red circle) was paired with a mild, unpleasant shock to the wrist, and another was not (participants set their own shock levels). Then, groups of participants either learned or were instructed to press a button that cancelled the upcoming shock. The final test phase examined whether the groups would continue to avoid and whether their beliefs about the likelihood of shock occurring would be maintained, despite no shocks being delivered. Findings showed that levels of avoidance and threat-beliefs were broadly identical across the groups, including a group that had to engage in inferential reasoning to determine whether or not shock would occur.

Dr Dymond plans to continue this line of research by investigating the social transmission of avoidance via observation and using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural circuitry underlying these "pathways" to avoidance. It is hoped that the research will contribute to a greater understanding of the causes of chronic avoidance, such as that often seen in anxiety disorders, and help to inform better assessments and clinical treatments.

This research has now been published in the leading open access journal, PLoS ONE: Dymond, S., Schlund, M. W., Roche, B., De Houwer, J., & Freegard, G. (2012). Safe from harm: Learned, instructed, and symbolic generalization pathways of human threat-avoidance. PLoS ONE, http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0047539.