The role of context in persistent avoidance and the predictive value of relief
Behaviour Research and Therapy , Volume 138
Fear renewal occurs when the context changes after fear extinction; however, whether avoidance is also influenced by context changes following fear extinction is untested. Forty-two participants performed an avoidance task within a typical fear renewal procedure. During Pavlovian conditioning, two stimuli (CS+) were associated with an aversive electrical stimulus (US), while a third stimulus was not (CS-). During subsequent avoidance learning, clicking a button canceled the delivery of the US during one but not the other CS+. Fear-related levels were then reduced by removing the US and the button in a new context (fear extinction with response prevention [Ext-RP]). Next, persistence of avoidance was tested in the extinction context B (group ABB) or the original conditioning context A (group ABA). We also tested whether ratings of relief pleasantness (based on both the CS- and the avoided CS+) during avoidance and Ext-RP predicted individual levels of persistent avoidance. Results showed that persistent avoidance was higher in conditioning context A than in extinction context B, and was predicted by higher relief pleasantness during avoidance conditioning. We conclude that persistent avoidance poses a threat to the long-term success of Ext-RP, and we propose that interventions aimed at mitigating the influence of context and relief levels might prove beneficial in this regard.