Fear Generalization in Humans: Systematic Review and Implications for Anxiety Disorder Research

Simon Dymond*, Joseph E. Dunsmoor, Bram Vervliet, Bryan Roche, Dirk Hermans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

232 Citations (Scopus)


Fear generalization, in which conditioned fear responses generalize or spread to related stimuli, is a defining feature of anxiety disorders. The behavioral consequences of maladaptive fear generalization are that aversive experiences with one stimulus or event may lead one to regard other cues or situations as potential threats that should be avoided, despite variations in physical form. Theoretical and empirical interest in the generalization of conditioned learning dates to the earliest research on classical conditioning in nonhumans. Recently, there has been renewed focus on fear generalization in humans due in part to its explanatory power in characterizing disorders of fear and anxiety. Here, we review existing behavioral and neuroimaging empirical research on the perceptual and non-perceptual (conceptual and symbolic) generalization of fear and avoidance in healthy humans and patients with anxiety disorders. The clinical implications of this research for understanding the etiology and treatment of anxiety is considered and directions for future research described.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)561-582
Number of pages22
JournalBehavior Therapy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Manuscript preparation was supported by KU Leuven Center of Excellence grant PF/10/005 to Dirk Hermans. We thank Greg Hajcak Proudfit for helpful comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014.

Other keywords

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance
  • Fear conditioning
  • Generalization


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