Social safety learning: Shared safety abolishes the recovery of learned threat

Y Pan, A Olsson, A Golkar: Social safety learning: Shared safety abolishes the recovery of learned threat. In: Behaviour Research and Therapy, 135 , pp. 103733, 2020.

Abstract

Humans, like other social animals, learn about threats and safety in the environment through social cues. Yet, the processes that contribute to the efficacy of social safety learning during threat transmission remain unknown. Here, we developed a novel dyadic model of associative threat and extinction learning. In three separate social groups, we manipulated whether safety information during extinction was acquired via direct exposure to the conditioned stimulus (CS) in the presence of another individual (Direct exposure), via observation of other's safety behavior (Vicarious exposure), or via the combination of both (Shared exposure).These groups were contrasted against a fourth group receiving direct CS exposure alone (Asocial exposure). Based on skin conductance responses, we observed that all social groups outperformed asocial learning in inhibiting the recovery of threat, but only Shared exposure abolished threat recovery. These results suggest that social safety learning is optimized by a combination of direct exposure and vicariously transmitted safety signals. This work might help develop exposure therapies used to treat symptoms of threat and anxiety-related disorders to counteract maladaptive fears in humans.