Assessment of social transmission of threats in humans using observational fear conditioning

Journal name:
Nature Protocols
Volume:
12,
Pages:
1378–1386
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nprot.2017.027
Published online

Abstract

Across the human life span, fear is often acquired indirectly by observation of the emotional expressions of others. The observational fear conditioning protocol was previously developed as a laboratory model for investigating socially acquired threat responses. This protocol serves as a suitable alternative to the widely used Pavlovian fear conditioning, in which threat responses are acquired through direct experiences. In the observational fear conditioning protocol, the participant (observer) watches a demonstrator being presented with a conditioned stimulus (CS) paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US). The expression of threat learning is measured as the conditioned response (CR) expressed by the observer in the absence of the demonstrator. CRs are commonly measured as skin conductance responses, but behavioral and neural measures have also been implemented. The experimental procedure is suitable for divergent populations, can be administered by a graduate student and takes ~40 min. Similar protocols are used in animals, emphasizing its value as a translational tool for studying socioemotional learning.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Design and outcome measures of the observational fear conditioning protocol.
    Figure 1: Design and outcome measures of the observational fear conditioning protocol.

    (a) General design of the observational fear conditioning protocol, depicting the observer (participant) in shaded gray, first watching the demonstrator's responses to the CS–US pairings (observational learning stage), and then being exposed to the CS (direct-expression stage). (b) The specific timing of the CS (yellow and blue areas) and US onsets (the shaded area refers to the presentation of the observational US while the CS is present; the expression of discomfort by the demonstrator might be longer) and (c) prototypical resulting SCR during the presentation of the CS+ and CS. Permission for the outlined experiment was obtained from the Regional Ethical Review Board Stockholm (http://www.epn.se).

  2. Prototypical SCRs.
    Figure 2: Prototypical SCRs.

    (a) SCRs to the observational CSs, including the SCR to the observational US. (b) SCRs to the direct CS presentations. Black dashed lines illustrate the scoring of the amplitude as the difference between peak and foot point after the stimulus onset. Circles demark the foot point and peak. Obs, observational.

  3. This figure illustrates the prototypical placement of electrodes
    Supplementary Fig. 1: This figure illustrates the prototypical placement of electrodes

Videos

  1. Illustration of the observational learning stage.
    Video 1: Illustration of the observational learning stage.
  2. Illustration of the direct-expression stage.
    Video 2: Illustration of the direct-expression stage.

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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Jan Haaker,
    • Armita Golkar &
    • Ida Selbing

Affiliations

  1. Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden.

    • Jan Haaker,
    • Armita Golkar,
    • Ida Selbing &
    • Andreas Olsson

Contributions

A.O. developed the original version of the observational fear conditioning protocol. A.G., I.S. and A.O. developed the current protocol, and all authors contributed to paradigm modifications. J.H. drafted the manuscript and all authors commented on the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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