Anxious behaviour in a demonstrator affects observational learning

I Selbing, A Olsson: Anxious behaviour in a demonstrator affects observational learning. In: Scientific Reports, 9 , pp. 9181, 2019.


Humans can acquire fear through the observation of others’ (learning models’) threat responses. These responses can be direct responses to aversive stimuli, or anticipatory responses to threats. Most research focuses on learning from observation of direct responses only. Here, we investigated how observational fear conditioning is influenced by a learning model’s typically anxious anticipatory responses. High anxiety individuals often display typically anxious anticipatory behaviour, such as worsened discrimination between safe and unsafe stimuli, characterized by increased threat responses to safe stimuli. We hypothesized that observation of an anxiously behaving model would worsen discriminatory learning. To this end, we developed an observational conditioning paradigm where a learning model was exposed to one safe and one unsafe stimuli. The learning model displayed anticipatory aversion to either to the unsafe stimulus only (Non-Anxious Model group) or to both the safe and unsafe stimuli (Anxious Model group) in addition to reacting directly to an aversive stimulus paired with the unsafe stimulus. Contrary to expectations, discriminatory learning was not worsened in the Anxious Model group compared to the Non-Anxious Model group. Rather, we saw more robust discriminatory learning in the Anxious Model group. The study provides a first step towards understanding the effect of other’s anticipatory responses in general and typically anxious anticipatory responses in particular, on observational fear learning.