Review

Social learning of fear

Published online:

Abstract

Research across species highlights the critical role of the amygdala in fear conditioning. However, fear conditioning, involving direct aversive experience, is only one means by which fears can be acquired. Exploiting aversive experiences of other individuals through social fear learning is less risky. Behavioral research provides important insights into the workings of social fear learning, and the neural mechanisms are beginning to be understood. We review research suggesting that an amygdala-centered model of fear conditioning can help to explain social learning of fear through observation and instruction. We also describe how observational and instructed fear is distinguished by involvement of additional neural systems implicated in social-emotional behavior, language and explicit memory, and propose a modified conditioning model to account for social fear learning. A better understanding of social fear learning promotes integration of biological principles of learning with cultural evolution.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. LeDoux for comments. This research was supported by the US National Institutes of Health MH62104 (to E.A.P.).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Andreas Olsson
  2. Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Elizabeth A Phelps
  3. Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Elizabeth A Phelps

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andreas Olsson.