Classical fear conditioning in the anxiety disorders: a meta-analysis

Behav Res Ther. 2005 Nov;43(11):1391-424. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2004.10.007.


Fear conditioning represents the process by which a neutral stimulus comes to evoke fear following its repeated pairing with an aversive stimulus. Although fear conditioning has long been considered a central pathogenic mechanism in anxiety disorders, studies employing lab-based conditioning paradigms provide inconsistent support for this idea. A quantitative review of 20 such studies, representing fear-learning scores for 453 anxiety patients and 455 healthy controls, was conducted to verify the aggregated result of this literature and to assess the moderating influences of study characteristics. Results point to modest increases in both acquisition of fear learning and conditioned responding during extinction among anxiety patients. Importantly, these patient-control differences are not apparent when looking at discrimination studies alone and primarily emerge from studies employing simple, single-cue paradigms where only danger cues are presented and no inhibition of fear to safety cues is required.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology*
  • Association Learning
  • Conditioning, Classical*
  • Cues*
  • Extinction, Psychological
  • Fear*
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic
  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Reinforcement, Psychology