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01-10-2020 | Original Article | Uitgave 1/2021 Open Access

Cognitive Therapy and Research 1/2021

Brief Training to Modify the Breadth of Attention Influences the Generalisation of Fear

Cognitive Therapy and Research > Uitgave 1/2021
Mohith M. Varma, Riddhi J. Pitliya, Tomislav D. Zbozinek, Tomer Shechner, Tom J. Barry
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Mohith M. Varma, and Riddhi J. Pitliya are co-first authors and contributed equally to this work

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Generalisation of fear from dangerous to safe stimuli is an important process associated with anxiety disorders. However, factors that contribute towards fear (over)-generalisation remain poorly understood. The present investigation explored how attentional breadth (global/holistic and local/analytic) influences fear generalisation and, whether people trained to attend in a global vs. local manner show more or less generalisation.


Participants (N = 39) were shown stimuli which comprised of large ‘global’ letters and smaller ‘local’ letters (e.g. an F comprised of As) and they either had to identify the global or local letter. Participants were then conditioned to fear a face by pairing it with an aversive scream (75% reinforcement schedule). Perceptually similar, but safe, faces, were then shown. Self-reported fear levels and skin conductance responses were measured.


Compared to participants in Global group, participants in Local group demonstrated greater fear for dangerous stimulus (CS +) as well as perceptually similar safe stimuli.


Participants trained to attend to stimuli in a local/analytical manner showed higher magnitude of fear acquisition and generalisation than participants trained to attend in a global/holistic way. Breadth of attentional focus can influence overall fear levels and fear generalisation and this can be manipulated via attentional training.

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