Looking fear in the face: Adults but not adolescents gaze at social threat during observational learning

Yael Skversky-Blocq, Shahar Shmuel, Oded Cohen, Tomer Shechner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Observational threat learning is an indirect pathway to learn about what is safe versus dangerous. Visual gaze patterns may be an important measure to understand the underlying mechanisms of social threat learning. However, little research has considered this type of learning or attention allocation during observational learning, and even less has examined it across development. The study examined visual gaze patterns during observational threat acquisition amongst adolescents and adults. Ninety-three adolescents (13–17 years) and 78 adults (18–34 years) underwent a differential observational acquisition task by watching a video wherein a learning model was presented with colored bells. One bell (conditioned stimulus, CS+) was associated with an electric stimulation to the learning model's arm (social unconditioned stimulus, social US), while the other bell was not (CS-). Eye tracking was used during each trial. First, all participants, regardless of age, fixated longer on the face of the learning model when the CS+ was presented than when the CS- was presented. Second, adolescents averted their gaze from the learning model's face when the learning model received an electrical stimulation, whereas adults fixated more on the learning model's face when the stimulation was administered. Finally, adolescents understood the CS+-US contingency less than adults, stemming from the different gaze pattern for the age groups to the social US. Results replicate previous findings in adults and extend them to adolescents, emphasizing the importance of the learning model's facial expressions in conveying information on what is safe versus dangerous in the environment. Moreover, results showed developmental differences in gaze patterns during observational threat learning; this translated into poorer understanding of the CS+-US association amongst adolescents.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)240-247
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Developmental differences
  • Eye tracking
  • Observational threat learning

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • General Neuroscience


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