Social Fear Learning: from Animal Models to Human Function

Trends Cogn Sci. 2017 Jul;21(7):546-555. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.04.010. Epub 2017 May 22.


Learning about potential threats is critical for survival. Learned fear responses are acquired either through direct experiences or indirectly through social transmission. Social fear learning (SFL), also known as vicarious fear learning, is a paradigm successfully used for studying the transmission of threat information between individuals. Animal and human studies have begun to elucidate the behavioral, neural and molecular mechanisms of SFL. Recent research suggests that social learning mechanisms underlie a wide range of adaptive and maladaptive phenomena, from supporting flexible avoidance in dynamic environments to intergenerational transmission of trauma and anxiety disorders. This review discusses recent advances in SFL studies and their implications for basic, social and clinical sciences.

Keywords: emotional contagion; empathy; fear contagion; fear learning by proxy; intergenerational transmission; observational fear learning; vicarious fear learning.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Models, Animal
  • Models, Biological
  • Social Behavior
  • Social Learning*