Feature Specific Attention and Return of Fear after Extinction

Tom J. Barry, Bram Vervliet, Dirk Hermans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (SciVal)


Anxiety disorders are often treated by repeatedly presenting stimuli that are perceptually similar to original stimuli to which fear was originally acquired. Fear can return after it is extinguished because of the differences between these stimuli. It may possible to attenuate return of fear by manipulating attention to the commonalities between feared stimuli and extinction stimuli. After acquiring fear for an animal-like stimulus by pairing with an electro-cutaneous shock, fear was extinguished by repeatedly presenting a similar stimulus. During extinction participants were asked questions that instructed them to attend towards the features in common between the acquisition and extinction stimulus or towards the unique features of the extinction stimulus. Return of fear was assessed by presenting a second perceptually similar stimulus after extinction. Participants showed a return in skin conductance responding after extinction in the unique condition, and not in the common condition. Both groups showed a return in self-report ratings of US expectancy. Neither group showed a return in fear potentiated startle, but there was evidence that this may have been due to individual differences in emotional attentional control. Our conclusions are limited by the use of a self-report measure of emotional attentional control and the absence of limits on the length of time participants could take to answer the extinction questions. It may be possible to enhance extinction and prevent a return of the physiological aspects of fear by manipulating attention during extinction. However, this does not appear to influence explicit expectancy of aversive outcomes. Individual differences in attentional control may influence this process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-87
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychopathology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2017


  • Anxiety
  • Attention
  • Exposure
  • Extinction
  • Fear
  • Phobia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


Dive into the research topics of 'Feature Specific Attention and Return of Fear after Extinction'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this