Threat-related gaze fixation and its relationship with the speed and generalisability of extinction learning

Tom J. Barry, Bram Vervliet, Dirk Hermans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (SciVal)


Objective: Attention plays an important role in the treatment of anxiety. Research has yet to elucidate how individual differences in attention or, particularly, gaze fixation can influence learning during treatment. The present investigation used an experimental analogue of the acquisition, treatment, and relapse of fear to examine this issue. Method: After pairing a stimulus (A) with an aversive electrocutaneous shock, such that participants come to fear this previously neutral stimulus, participants are repeatedly presented with a second stimulus (B) that possessed some common features with A as well as some of its own unique features. During presentations of B, fear was expected to reduce or extinguish. After this, participants were presented with C, which possessed some features of A that were not present in B as well as some features of B that were not present in A, and return of fear was assessed. Throughout this procedure, differences in gaze were measured so that this could be compared with indices for extinction and return of fear. Fear was measured in terms of skin conductance response. Results: Participants who spent more time looking at the unique features of B or who avoided the features in common with A showed slower extinction of their fear response. The same participants also showed reduced return of fear when C was presented. Conclusions: These findings are interpreted in terms of how attentional avoidance of threat-related stimuli might influence the inhibitory learning that takes place during extinction in experimental settings and exposure in clinical settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)200-208
Number of pages9
JournalAustralian Journal of Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


  • attention and perception
  • cognitive processes
  • conditioning and learning
  • emotional disorders
  • experimental psychopathology
  • individual differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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