Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission

A Olsson, K I Nearing, E A Phelps: Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission. In: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2 (1), pp. 3–11, 2007, ISSN: 1749-5016.


Classical fear conditioning has been used as a model paradigm to explain fear learning across species. In this paradigm, the amygdala is known to play a critical role. However, classical fear conditioning requires first-hand experience with an aversive event, which may not be how most fears are acquired in humans. It remains to be determined whether the conditioning model can be extended to indirect forms of learning more common in humans. Here we show that fear acquired indirectly through social observation, with no personal experience of the aversive event, engages similar neural mechanisms as fear conditioning. The amygdala was recruited both when subjects observed someone else being submitted to an aversive event, knowing that the same treatment awaited themselves, and when subjects were subsequently placed in an analogous situation. These findings confirm the central role of the amygdala in the acquisition and expression of observational fear learning, and validate the extension of cross-species models of fear conditioning to learning in a human sociocultural context. Our findings also provides new insights into the relationship between learning from, and empathizing with, fearful others. This study suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.