Animal studies of discriminative fear conditioning traditionally use stimuli that are distant in physical features and thus easily distinguished perceptually. Independently, human studies have shown that training mostly improves discrimination thresholds. We found that aversive learning actually induced an increase in discrimination thresholds in humans and that subjective aversion during conditioning predicted the individual threshold change. This counterintuitive performance deterioration occurred when using odors or sounds as aversive reinforcers and was not a result of attentional distraction or decision bias. In contrast, positive reinforcement or mere exposure induced the typically reported decrease in thresholds. Our findings indicate that aversive outcomes induce wider stimulus generalization by modulating perceptual thresholds, suggesting the engagement of low-level mechanisms. We suggest that for risk-or loss-related stimuli, less specificity could be a benefit, as it invokes the same mechanisms that respond quickly and efficiently in the face of danger.
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