Psychological and physiological correlates of stimulus discrimination in adults

Psychophysiology. 2023 Oct;60(10):e14327. doi: 10.1111/psyp.14327. Epub 2023 May 11.


The discrimination of cues in the environment that signal danger ("fear cue") is important for survival but depends critically on the discernment of such cues from ones that pose no threat ("safety cues"). In rodents, we previously demonstrated the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that support fear versus safety discrimination and documented that these mechanisms extend to the discrimination of reward as well. While learning about reward is equally important for survival, it remains an under-studied area of research, particularly in human studies of conditional discrimination. In the present study, we translated our rodent task of fear reward and neutral discrimination (fear, reward, and neutral discrimination [FRND]) for use in humans. Undergraduate students (N = 53) completed the FRND while electrodermal activity was recorded. Skin conductance response (SCR) amplitude, a marker of arousal response, was derived for fear, reward, and neutral cues that signaled no outcome; critical trials assessed conditional discrimination using combined fear + neutral and reward + neutral cues. Participants provided likeability ratings for each cue type. Results demonstrated that participants rated reward cues the best, fear cues the worst, and neutral cues in between, while SCR amplitude was largest for fear and reward cues and lowest for neutral cues. SCR amplitudes were reduced for fear + neutral (compared to fear) and reward + neutral cues (compared to reward). Results demonstrate that the FRND is a useful paradigm for the assessment of psychological and physiological discrimination of fear and reward. Implications and directions for future work are discussed.

Keywords: arousal; conditioning; emotion; fear; reward; skin conductance.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Cues*
  • Fear / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning*