What is it about?

Pavlovian aversive conditioning is one of the most fundamental forms of learning in the animal kingdom helping organisms predict and anticipate impending threats in the environment. Here, we investigate the psychological mechanisms underlying why humans preferentially learn about specific stimuli during Pavlovian aversive conditioning. We show that similar to angry faces, happy faces can be more readily associated with an aversive outcome (electric stimulation) than neutral faces, and that the persistence of this association is influenced by individual differences in affective evaluation of happy faces. These findings suggest that enhanced Pavlovian aversive learning is not specific to threatening stimuli and depends on the stimulus’ affective relevance to the individual.

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Why is it important?

Pavlovian conditioning has drawn a large interest in the animal and human literature as a fundamental process and procedure in the study of emotion. For long, it has been suggested that only threatening stimuli from evolutionary origin, such as snakes and angry faces, are preferentially conditioned to threat. Our findings challenge this view by showing that positive emotional stimuli can likewise be preferentially learned during Pavlovian conditioning. We moreover highlight that inter-individual differences in affective evaluation of these stimuli can play a key role in the occurrence of this preferential learning. Accordingly, the present work contributes to an improved understanding of the basic determinants of emotional learning in humans.

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This page is a summary of: Learning biases to angry and happy faces during Pavlovian aversive conditioning., Emotion, June 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/emo0000733.
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