Fear Generalization and Anxiety: Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms

Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Sep 1;78(5):336-43. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.04.010. Epub 2015 Apr 20.


Fear can be an adaptive emotion that helps defend against potential danger. Classical conditioning models elegantly describe how animals learn which stimuli in the environment signal danger, but understanding how this learning is generalized to other stimuli that resemble aspects of a learned threat remains a challenge. Critically, the overgeneralization of fear to harmless stimuli or situations is a burden to daily life and characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders. Here, we review emerging evidence on behavioral and neural mechanisms of generalization of emotional learning with the goal of encouraging further research on generalization in anxiety disorders. We begin by placing research on fear generalization in a rich historical context of stimulus generalization dating back to Pavlov, which lays the foundation for theoretical and experimental approaches used today. We then transition to contemporary behavioral and neurobiological research on generalization of emotional learning in humans and nonhuman animals and discuss the factors that promote generalization on the one hand from discrimination on the other hand.

Keywords: Amygdala; Anxiety; Aversive-conditioning; Discrimination; Fear; Similarity; Specificity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety* / pathology
  • Anxiety* / physiopathology
  • Anxiety* / psychology
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Humans