Thought suppression inhibits the generalization of fear extinction

Behav Brain Res. 2021 Feb 1:398:112931. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2020.112931. Epub 2020 Oct 11.


A challenge for translating fear extinction research into clinical treatments for stress and anxiety disorders is that extinction learning tends not to generalize beyond the treatment context. This may be because the hippocampus limits the expression of extinction memories. Consequently, downregulating the hippocampus may help to promote the generalization of extinction learning. One nonpharmacological strategy to downregulate hippocampal activity in humans is motivated forgetting, in which a participant deliberately attempts to suppress the encoding and/or retrieval of episodic memories. Here, we evaluated whether this strategy could facilitate extinction generalization by augmenting extinction training with thought suppression. Participants were threat conditioned using two conditioned stimulus (CS) categories paired with an electrical shock. Subsequently, during extinction training, one CS category was accompanied by thought suppression. Participants were tested for extinction generalization 24h later with conceptual variations of the extinguished stimuli. Contrary to our prediction, we found that extinction training paired with thought suppression resulted in enhanced shock expectancy (i.e., worse generalization) relative to standard extinction. We conclude that thought suppression during memory encoding likely acts as an inhibitory cue that blocks the acquisition of extinction memories, and therefore may not be a viable tactic to promote extinction generalization in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Keywords: Directed forgetting; Pavlovian extinction; Protection from extinction; Thought suppression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Generalization, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult