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Social Learning of Fear

Liz Phelps
Department of Psychology, NYU , USA

Research on fear acquisition and extinction in non-human animals has relied on fear conditioning as a model paradigm, in which a neutral stimulus acquires aversive properties by it pairing with the direct experience of an aversive event.  These detailed animal models have provided a basis for investigating the mechanisms of affective learning in humans.  However, there are a number of ways in which these models fail to reflect everyday human function in a social and cultural context.  Through the construction of complex social networks and culture, combined with the ability to symbolically convey information through language, human social experience and affective learning are inherently intertwined.  Although humans may have developed unique capabilities allowing for complex social interactions, such as higher order reasoning and language, the basic premise of the our studies is that humans did not evolve special mechanisms for affective learning. Rather, we propose that the mechanisms underlying social means of acquiring and diminishing fear responses in humans take advantage of evolutionarily shared neural systems of fear learning and extinction.


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