From adaptive to maladaptive fear: Heterogeneity in threat and safety learning across response systems in a representative sample

F.J. Gazendam, A.M. Krypotos, J.H. Kamphuis, A.R. van der Leij, H.M.H. Huizenga, A. Eigenhuis, M. Kindt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Individual differences in fear learning are a crucial prerequisite for the translational value of the fear-conditioning model. In a representative sample (N = 936), we used latent class growth models to detect individual differences in associative fear learning. For a series of subsequent test phases varying in ambiguity (i.e., acquisition, extinction, generalization, reinstatement, and re-extinction), conditioned responding was assessed on three response domains (i.e., subjective distress, startle responding, and skin conductance). We also associated fear learning across the different test phases and response domains with selected personality traits related to risk and resilience for anxiety, namely Harm Avoidance, Stress Reaction, and Wellbeing (MPQ; Tellegen and Waller, 2008). Heterogeneity in fear learning was evident, with fit indices suggesting subgroups for each outcome measure. Identified subgroups showed adaptive, maladaptive, or limited-responding patterns. For subjective distress, fear and safety learning was more maladaptive in the subgroups high on Harm Avoidance, while more adaptive learning was observed in subgroups with medium Harm Avoidance and the limited- or non-responders were lowest in Harm Avoidance. Distress subgroups did not differ in Stress Reaction or Wellbeing. Startle and SCR subgroups did not differ on selected personality traits. The heterogeneity in fear-learning patterns resembled risk and resilient anxiety development observed in real life, which supports the associative fear-learning paradigm as a useful translational model for pathological fear development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-287
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


  • Anxiety
  • Anxiety vulnerability
  • Associative fear learning
  • Fear conditioning
  • Individual differences
  • Translational research


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