Dimensionality and optimal combination of autonomic fear-conditioning measures in humans

Behav Res Methods. 2024 Feb 29. doi: 10.3758/s13428-024-02341-3. Online ahead of print.


Fear conditioning, also termed threat conditioning, is a commonly used learning model with clinical relevance. Quantification of threat conditioning in humans often relies on conditioned autonomic responses such as skin conductance responses (SCR), pupil size responses (PSR), heart period responses (HPR), or respiration amplitude responses (RAR), which are usually analyzed separately. Here, we investigate whether inter-individual variability in differential conditioned responses, averaged across acquisition, exhibits a multi-dimensional structure, and the extent to which their linear combination could enhance the precision of inference on whether threat conditioning has occurred. In a mega-analytic approach, we re-analyze nine data sets including 256 individuals, acquired by the group of the last author, using standard routines in the framework of psychophysiological modeling (PsPM). Our analysis revealed systematic differences in effect size between measures across datasets, but no evidence for a multidimensional structure across various combinations of measures. We derive the statistically optimal weights for combining the four measures and subsets thereof, and we provide out-of-sample performance metrics for these weights, accompanied by bias-corrected confidence intervals. We show that to achieve the same statistical power, combining measures allows for a relevant reduction in sample size, which in a common scenario amounts to roughly 24%. To summarize, we demonstrate a one-dimensional structure of threat conditioning measures, systematic differences in effect size between measures, and provide weights for their optimal linear combination in terms of maximal retrodictive validity.

Keywords: Conditioned autonomic responses; Fear conditioning; Inter-individual variability; Mega-analytic; Optimal combination; Psychophysiological modeling; Threat conditioning measures.