Fear learning, avoidance, and generalization are more context-dependent for adults than adolescents

Zohar Klein, Smadar Berger, Bram Vervliet, Tomer Shechner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examined developmental differences in contextual and perceptual generalization of fear and avoidance learning. Adults (N = 39) and adolescents (N = 44) completed differential fear acquisition wherein each conditional stimulus (CS) appeared in a background context. In the dangerous context, one stimulus (CS+) predicted an aversive sound, and the other stimulus (CS-) did not. In the safe context, the aversive sound was never administered with either CS. During fear generalization, participants were presented with three generalization stimuli (GSs), ranging on a perceptual continuum from threat to safety stimuli, in both contexts. Participants then completed avoidance conditioning and avoidance generalization phases, allowing them to actively avoid the upcoming aversive sound by pressing an avoidance button. Developmental differences emerged in threat perception, physiological arousal, avoidance behavior, and eye movements during contextual fear learning and generalization. Adolescents showed less discrimination between stimuli and contexts than adults, resulting primarily from their elevated fear responses to safety and generalized stimuli. Developmental differences in fear learning should be further explored in future research, as they could explain why adolescence is a sensitive developmental period for anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103993
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021


  • Avoidance
  • Context
  • Development
  • Fear learning
  • Generalization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Clinical Psychology


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