|THE IMPACT OF A CONTEXT SWITCH AND CONTEXT INSTRUCTIONS ON THE RETURN OF VERBALLY CONDITIONED FEAR
|Jan De Houwer
Mertens, G., & De Houwer, J. (2016). The impact of a context switch and context instructions on the return of verbally conditioned fear. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 51, 10-18. Background and Objectives: Repeated exposure to a conditioned stimulus can lead to a reduction of conditioned fear responses towards this stimulus (i.e., extinction). However, this reduction is often fragile and sensitive to contextual changes. In the current study, we investigated whether extinction of fear responses established through verbal threat instructions is also sensitive to contextual changes. We additionally examined whether verbal instructions can strengthen the effects of a context change. Methods: Fifty-two participants were informed that one colored rectangle would be predictive of an electrocutaneous stimulus, while another colored rectangle was instructed to be safe. Half of these participants were additionally informed that this contingency would only hold when the background of the computer screen had a particular color but not when it had another color. After these instructions, the participants went through an unannounced extinction phase that was followed by a context switch. Results: Results indicate that extinguished verbally conditioned fear responses can return after a context switch, although only as indexed by self-reported expectancy ratings. This effect was stronger when participants were told that CS-US contingency would depend on the background color, in which case a return of fear was also observed on physiological measures of fear. Limitations: Extinction was not very pronounced in this study, possibly limiting the extent to which return of fear could be observed on physiological measures. Conclusions: Contextual cues can impact the return of fear established via verbal instructions. Verbal instructions can further strengthen the contextual control of fear.