The effects of age and trait anxiety on avoidance learning and its generalization

Zohar Klein, Gil Shner, Rivkah Ginat-Frolich, Bram Vervliet, Tomer Shechner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Avoidance is an important self-protective behavior, but excessive avoidance is maladaptive and a core feature of anxiety disorders. Given that several of these disorders emerge in adolescence, maladaptive avoidance learning might be a risk factor in subsequent psychopathology. The current study investigated the effects of age and trait anxiety on avoidance learning and related processes. Adults and youth completed a differential fear-conditioning task. Thereafter, during avoidance conditioning, participants learned to press a button cancelling an upcoming aversive sound. Next, during extinction, no aversive sound was presented, and the avoidance button was removed. Last, in the generalization test, a series of morphs ranging in similarity from the safety cue to the danger cue were presented, and the avoidance button was reintroduced. Self-reported safety-danger ratings and skin conductance responses were collected. Developmental differences emerged in safety-danger ratings during avoidance conditioning; while adults exhibited a gradual decrease in differential danger ratings, among youth, this response was moderated by trait anxiety levels. Following extinction, participants returned to avoid the danger cue and perceptually similar morphs. Moreover, avoidance response to some generalized stimuli was associated with trait anxiety levels. These findings highlight the importance of examining avoidance learning in relation to anxiety symptoms throughout development.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number103611
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
StatePublished - Jun 2020


  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Development
  • Fear conditioning
  • Fear generalization

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


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