Assessment of skin conductance in African American and Non-African American participants in studies of conditioned fear

Psychophysiology. 2017 Nov;54(11):1741-1754. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12909. Epub 2017 Jul 4.


Skin conductance (SC) is a psychophysiological measure of sympathetic nervous system activity that is commonly used in research to assess conditioned fear responses. A portion of individuals evidence very low or unmeasurable SC levels (SCL) and/or response (SCR) during fear conditioning, which precludes the use of their SC data. The reason that some individuals do not produce measurable SCL and/or SCR is not clear; some early research suggested that race may be an influencing factor. In the current article, archival data from five fear conditioning samples collected from four different laboratories were examined to explore SCL and SCR magnitude in African American (AA) and non-African American (non-AA) participants. Across studies, the aggregate group difference for exclusion due to unmeasurable SCL or no measurable SCR to an unconditioned stimulus reflected a significant medium effect size (d = 0.54). Furthermore, 24.3% (range: 0-48.3%) of AA participants met SC exclusion criteria versus 14.3% (range: 4.3-24.2%) of non-AA participants. AA participants also displayed significantly lower SCL during habituation (d = 0.58). The low SC levels and responses in AA individuals and the consequent exclusion of their contributions to fear conditioning study results impacts the generalizability of findings across races. Given higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic anxiety in AA individuals, it is important that AA individuals not be excluded from fear conditioning research, which informs the treatment of anxiety and PTSD. Examination of the basis of very low SCL and/or SCR is a potentially informative direction for future research.

Keywords: African American; fear conditioning; psychophysiology; race; skin conductance.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • African Americans*
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Young Adult