The Role of Stimulus Specificity and Attention in the Generalization of Extinction

Tom J. Barry, James W. Griffith, Bram Vervliet, Dirk Hermans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (SciVal)


Exposure therapy for anxiety is effective but fear can still return afterward. This may be because the stimuli that people are exposed to are dissimilar from the stimuli to which fear was originally acquired. After pairing an animal-like image (A) with a shock stimulus (US), a perceptually similar stimulus (B) was presented without the US in extinction. Participants were then shown A (ABA), a second generalization stimulus (ABC) or B (ABB). Groups ABA and ABC evidenced a return of US expectancy relative to participants who were shown B (ABB). Participants in group ABC who self-reported high levels of attentional control evidenced greater return of expectancy relative to participants low in attentional control. Participants with a high level of attentional control also showed steeper extinction gradients. Attentional control may influence perceptions of similarity and the learning that follows. Making note of such differences may be valuable in exposure treatment for anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-152
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychopathology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a research programme of the Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO) and by the Center of Excellence on Generalization Research (GRIP⁄TT; University of Leuven Grant PF/10/005). There are no known conflicts of interest associated with this publication and there has been no significant financial support for this work that could have influenced its outcome.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 SAGE Publications Ltd.


  • Anxiety
  • Attention
  • Exposure
  • Extinction
  • Generalization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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