School of Psychology, Birkbeck College

Course PSYC044U (Psychobiology II.) WEEK 7
March 8th 2007

gifThis is just the first 7 pages of the longer paper handout. Web versions of the other pages in the paper handout are accessible from the side index. If you need to print out the handout, then all the pages are in this 'pdf' file, but this is quite large and may be difficult to download over a telephone modem.


WEEK 7: Effects of Aversive:Stimuli Avoidance learning, conditioned anxiety, and human neurosis.

Avoidance Learning

Avoidance learning occurs when an instrumental response prevents the occurrence of aversive events. It has been studied in rats using a “shuttle box” in which animals are trained to jump over a barrier between two compartments at the onset of a signal, which precedes floor shock in the current compartment (Mowrer and Lamoreaux, 1946) and also using “free-operant conditioning” or “Sidman avoidance”, in which animals can prevent shocks which would otherwise be delivered in a Skinner box by pressing a lever (Sidman, 1953). Although classically conditioned “species-specific defence reactions” are undoubtedly a factor in many experiments, Miller (1948) demonstrated that avoidance learning can involve more than Pavlovian anticipatory defence responses. Avoidance learning of novel responses presented a problem for Thorndikean and Hullean accounts of instrumental learning, since there is no tangible external event following a response. The “two-process” (or “two-factor”) theory of avoidance learning provided a way of reconciling the phenomena with these kinds of theories by postulating an internal reinforcing event, namely the reduction of conditioned emotional reactions.


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The two-process theory of avoidance learning (Mowrer, 1940; Gray, 1975; Gray and McNaughton, 1996)

In this, avoidance learning is interpreted as a product of both Pavlovian and instrumental mechanisms. The Pavlovian process involves the conditioning of emotional reactions (“conditioned fear”, “conditioned anxiety”) to the signal for aversive events. The instrumental process is used to account for the learning of novel motor responses which have the effect of alleviating this aversive internal state. The presumed “satisfying state of affairs” representing the positive outcome of responses is internal and hypothetical, but the theory is supported by results showing that avoidance learning is improved when a response produces external changes (for instance, if jumping in a shuttle-box turns off the “warning-signal”, or if lever pressing in a Skinner box allows the animal to move to a different place; Mowrer and Lamoreaux, 1946, Baron et al, 1977).


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Problems for the two-process theory of avoidance learning.

1. Intermittent outcomes of the warning-signal. As conditioned emotional effects are attributed to Pavlovian processes, successful avoidance appears paradoxical, since the warning signal then no longer signals aversive events. The most obvious way around this is to argue that the effective predictor of an aversive outcome is the warning signal without a response, or that avoidance responses are followed by an internal sense of relief (Kim et al., 2006).

2. Persistence of responding. Nevertheless, there are data suggesting that responses learned under avoidance procedures may persist much longer than would be predicted by a standard form of the two-process theory (Solomon et al, 1953). It may be that conditioned anxiety is innately more persistent that conditioned anticipations of food and that anxiety persists after a limited number of conditioning trials because the experience of conditioned anxiety its itself sufficiently aversive to act as a UCS.

3. Absence of measurable emotionality. A more serious problem for the straightforward two-process theory is that motor behaviour sometime persists when there are no measurable signs of physiological indicators of emotionality (Solomon et al, 1953; Herrnstein, 1969; Seligman and Johnston, 1973). In these cases it is possible to appeal to automatic habits (Mackintosh, 1983), but it is probably also necessary to allow for a more cognitive (and Tolmanian) kind of instrumental avoidance learning in which the goal of the prevention of aversive outcomes operates without high levels of classically conditioned anxiety. Herrnstein (1969) and Mackintosh (1983) infer that classically conditioned emotional effects can be ignored, but this does not square with the many cases where they undoubtedly occur (e.g. Abbot et al 1984; Weiss, 1968; Wolpe, 1958).


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Conditioned anxiety and human neurosis
  • Parallels between animal reactions to aversive stimuli and human neurosis have been drawn over many decades and continue in modern forms (Rau et al., 2005; Shumake et al., 2005; Delgado et al., 2006).  Mower's theoretical paper in 1939 had as its main reference Freud, 1936, and Rilling (2000) suggests that the classic Watson and Rayner (1920) paper was partly responsible for popularising Freud .

  • However Wolpe's (1958) development of the technique of systematic desensitisation, based on his own earlier experiments with cats (Wolpe, 1952) was in his view an alternative to psychoanalytic treatment (Wolpe, 1981).

  • Not surprisingly there are many criticisms of conditioning theories of human neurosis, and some of these come from behavioural oriented theorists (e.g. Rachman, 1977).

  • As with Pavlovian conditioning unrelated to anxiety, there is a case that human behaviours are mediated by conscious cognitions rather that automatic responses (e.g. Lovibond, 2003), and persistent physiological responses to experienced traumas would not account for a wide range of human neurotic symptoms. It is commoner now to appeal to explicit cognitive mechanisms as both causative and curative factors (e.g. Brewin, 1989, Clark, 1986; Brewin & Holmes, 2003; Brewin, 2003, Mineka & Zinbarg, 2006).

  • However the irrational nature of many clinical symptoms suggest that they are less directly under cognitive control that the idealized picture of human cognition would suggest:

  • there are also some syndromes where conscious cognitions are noticeable by their absence (e.g. “Non Fearful Panic Disorder”: Kushner and Beitman, 1990; Fleet et al, 1998,1999; Aikens et al., 1999; Bringager et al., 2004; Carmin et al., 2003).

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  • Numerous accounts of human anxiety disorders (including Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, and phobias) have been published in the last few years, in which some role for conditioned anxiety or fear is included (e.g. Brewin, 2001; Brewin & Holmes, 2003; Bouton et al., Barlow 2001, Lang, Davis & Ohman, 2000; Ohman & Mineka, 2001; and Mineka & Ohman, 2002; Mineka & Zinbarg, 2006)

  • These accounts could be regarded as extended versions of the "Two-level hypothesis" described in pages 167-170 of Lieberman (2000), in which there is a relatively automatic, largely subcortical route to fear responses involving the amygdala (Cheng et al., 2003), as well as a more indirect cortical and hippocampal route, which may involve verbal memories and evaluations in the human case. (See Ohman and Mineka, 2001, page 513: Two levels of learning in human conditioning

  • “at the heart of phobia, there is a dissociation between fear and cognitive understanding that is consistent with the automaticity and encapsulation of fear characterizing the evolved module.” (Ohman and Mineka, 2001; p. 502

  • However, criticism of conditioning accounts continue to come from behaviourally oriented theorists (among others) and Poulton and Menzies (2002) have argued that "evolutionarily-relevant fears", such as fear of height or fear of the dark may emerge in the absence of either direct or indirect associative learning. (But see Davey, 2002).

  • Alternatives to conditioning explanations for anxiety disorders include theories which propose that there are marked individual differences in Anxiety Sensitivity (Beck et al., 1999; Weems et al., 2002' Zvolensky et al., 2003) or in the emotional processing of threatening stimuli (e.g Monk et al., 2004; Pflugshaupt et al., 2005) or more generally in genetic sensitivity to stressful events (Leonardo & Hen, 2006).
  • Brewin (1989, see also 2001, 2003 and 2006) drew together both conditioning and cognitive theories and proposed that emotional stimuli are subject to both conscious and non-conscious processing, making a distinction between verbally accessible knowledge, and that which can only be recovered by exposure to situational cues.

  • He suggests that the non-conscious system is amenable to Pavlovian conditioning and in particular can influence avoidance behaviour –

    “Such a system would be able to account both for conditioning in animals and for the irrational nature of some human fears and phobias” (Brewin, 1989; pp.281-1)

  • “.... avoidance behaviour, both in animals and humans, is often mediated by nonconscious cognitive processes that reflect the influence of prior learning about stimulus-stimulus contingencies.” (Brewin, 1989; p. 391)

  • Brewin refers to both the conscious and the non-conscious system as types of cognition, but in the non-conscious system what he calls “situational memories”

  • (in other words classically conditioned associations) are not accessible to or modifiable by conscious experience, while there is in addition the possibility of conscious reconstructions of experience that can by evaluated and changed by verbal interventions.

  • Brewin's approach has some similarity to the “3-systems model” of human anxiety previously used by behaviour therapists (e.g. Lang, 1968; Hugdahl, 1981), in which it is recognized that “verbal/cognitive", “emotional/physiological” and “behavioural” aspects of anxiety may have separate influences.

  • Foa and Kozak (1986) reviewed a wide range of therapeutic interventions designed to reduce anxiety, and argued that they contained two common factors: activation of “fear structures” in memory, since fear structures stored in memory but not accessed cannot be changed; and integration of new information, some elements of which are incompatible with the original fear structures, into them –

  • “It is argued that some form of exposure to feared situations is common to many psychotherapies for anxiety, and that confrontation with feared objects or situations is an effective treatment” (abstract, p.20)


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In fact, although his concept of anxiety was clearly much more complex, ideas about relations between anxiety, avoidance behaviour and neurosis go back to Freud –

“.... symptoms are only formed in order to avoid anxiety.... thus anxiety would be the fundamental phenomenon and main problem of neurosis.” (Freud, 1959; p.144)

“Thus we attributed two modes of origin to anxiety in later life. One was involuntary, automatic... and arose whenever a dangerous situation... had established itself. The other was produced by the ego as soon as a situation of this kind merely threatened to occur, in order to call for its avoidance.” (Freud, 1959; p. 162).


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Bouton et al.'s (2001) conditioning theory of panic disorder depends on differentiating between panic and anxiety

“Any theory of PD must acknowledge the strong and growing network of evidence suggesting fundamental differences between the emotional phenomena of panic and anxiety. Panic attacks have been defined as a subjective sense of extreme fear or impending doom accompanied by a massive autonomic surge and strong fight-or-flight reaction tendencies…. Anxiety has been defined as an apprehensive anticipation of future danger, often accompanied by somatic symptoms of tension or feelings of dysphoria.

The present article provides an integrative theory of the etiology of PD that uses contemporary learning theory as its base….. we distinguish between two aversive motivational states, anxiety and panic…. we expect that a major effect of early experience with panic is the conditioning of anxiety to cues that are associated with the episode…. As is widely recognized, the classical conditioning of anxiety also makes it possible for new operant behaviours to be reinforced when they escape or reduce it.” (Bouton et al., 2001; p.7)


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Apart from direct accounts of human neurosis, there continues to be behavioural and psychobiological research on fear conditioning in human subjects in more general contexts such as the study of emotional learning (e.g. Bass et al., 2004; Cheng et al., 2003; Morris and Dolan, 2004; Richards and Blanchette, 2004; Kosson et al., 2006; de Rosnay et al., 2006)




Sample Essay

How is “conditioned fear” relevant to accounts of human neurosis.       




Main Sources

Lieberman, D. (1993/2000) Learning: Behavior and Cognition. Belmont: Wadsworth. (in 1993 edn., pp330-343 & p85 & 133-142; in 2000 edn, pp.430-441, also p72-3 & pp124-133)

Walker, S.F. (1984) Learning Theory and Behaviour Modification. Methuen: London. (Chapter 9, esp. pp. 99-122)

Walker, S.F. (1987) Animal Learning: An Introduction. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. (Chapter 7 “Reward and Punishment”, pp 214-242.)

Further Reading (Alternatives)

Bouton, M. E., Mineka, S., & Barlow, D. H. (2001). A modern learning theory perspective on the etiology of panic disorder. Psychological Review, 108(1), 4-32.

Brewin, C. R. (2001). A cognitive neuroscience account of posttraumatic stress disorder and its treatment. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(4), 373-393.

Kring, A.M., Davison, G.C., Neale, J.M. & Johnson, S.L. (2007) Abnormal Psychology. 10th Edn. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley [616.89 DAV 4 copies in BK library] Chapter 5 'Anxiety Disorders' pp. 121-157.

Mineka, S., & Ohman, A. (2002). Phobias and preparedness: The selective, automatic, and encapsulated nature of fear. Biological Psychiatry, 52(10), 927-937. (electronic only via ScienceDirect)

Mineka, S., & Zinbarg, R. (2006). A contemporary learning theory perspective on the etiology of anxiety disorders - It's not what you thought it was. American Psychologist, 61(1), 10-26. (abstract on p. 16.)

Ohman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483-522.


[ abstracts for 5 of the above, plus one other.]

Or try browsing some relevant journals (see below)

Other References (Not normally required for further reading.)

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www.version of this paper (log on first for for access outside the College)

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Browse the Journal of Anxiety Disorders (log on first for for access outside the College)

Or browse Behavior Research and Therapy (also Science Direct: this one, but not the first one, is also on the shelves at BK library)