Observational learning of fear in real time procedure

Sci Rep. 2020 Oct 12;10(1):16960. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-74113-w.


Learning to avoid threats often occurs by observing others. Most previous research on observational fear learning (OFL) in humans has used pre-recorded standardized video of an actor and thus lacked ecological validity. Here, we aimed to enhance ecological validity of the OFL by engaging participants in a real-time observational procedure (35 pairs of healthy male friends, age 18-27). One of the participants watched the other undergo a differential fear conditioning task, in which a conditioned stimulus (CS+) was paired with an aversive electric shock and another stimulus (CS-) was always safe. Subsequently, the CS+ and CS- were presented to the observer to test the OFL. While the friend's reactions to the shock elicited strong skin conductance responses (SCR) in all observers, subsequent differential SCRs (CS+ > CS-) were found only when declarative knowledge of the CS+/US contingency (rated by the participants) was acquired. Contingency-aware observers also showed elevated fear potentiated startle responses during both CS+ and CS- compared to baseline. We conclude that our real-time procedure can be effectively used to study OFL. The procedure allowed for dissecting two components of the OFL: an automatic emotional reaction to the response of the demonstrator and learning about stimulus contingency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Young Adult