Sometimes I feel the fear of uncertainty: How intolerance of uncertainty and trait anxiety impact fear acquisition, extinction and the return of fear

Int J Psychophysiol. 2022 Nov;181:125-140. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2022.09.001. Epub 2022 Sep 15.


It is hypothesized that the ability to discriminate between threat and safety is impaired in individuals with high dispositional negativity, resulting in maladaptive behavior. A large body of research investigated differential learning during fear conditioning and extinction protocols depending on individual differences in intolerance of uncertainty (IU) and trait anxiety (TA), two closely-related dimensions of dispositional negativity, with heterogenous results. These might be due to varying degrees of induced threat/safety uncertainty. Here, we compared two groups with high vs. low IU/TA during periods of low (instructed fear acquisition) and high levels of uncertainty (delayed non-instructed extinction training and reinstatement). Dependent variables comprised subjective (US expectancy, valence, arousal), psychophysiological (skin conductance response, SCR, and startle blink), and neural (fMRI BOLD) measures of threat responding. During fear acquisition, we found strong threat/safety discrimination for both groups. During early extinction (high uncertainty), the low IU/TA group showed an increased physiological response to the safety signal, resulting in a lack of CS discrimination. In contrast, the high IU/TA group showed strong initial threat/safety discrimination in physiology, lacking discriminative learning on startle, and reduced neural activation in regions linked to threat/safety processing throughout extinction training indicating sustained but non-adaptive and rigid responding. Similar neural patterns were found after the reinstatement test. Taken together, we provide evidence that high dispositional negativity, as indicated here by IU and TA, is associated with greater responding to threat cues during the beginning of delayed extinction, and, thus, demonstrates altered learning patterns under changing environments.

Keywords: Dispositional negativity; Fear conditioning; Intolerance of uncertainty; Psychophysiology; Trait anxiety; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • Extinction, Psychological* / physiology
  • Fear / physiology
  • Galvanic Skin Response*
  • Humans
  • Uncertainty