Avoiding at all costs? An exploration of avoidance costs in a novel Virtual Reality procedure

Anke Lemmens*, Tom Smeets, Tom Beckers, Pauline Dibbets

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Approach-avoidance behaviours play a major role in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders as repeated avoidance behaviours are assumed to prevent fear extinction. Approach avoidance decisions (Conditioned Stimulus (CS)-avoidance and Unconditioned Stimulus (US) avoidance) and their effect on fear extinction and renewal were investigated using a novel Virtual Reality fear conditioning procedure that included avoidance costs that are relevant in real-life settings (i.e., temporal delay and physical effort). Participants had to choose between a safe (low approach incentive, no US) and risky stimulus (high approach incentive, US in 75 %). After differential fear acquisition and avoidance learning, participants were randomized to an Avoidance condition or No Avoidance condition during fear extinction. Fear extinction took place in either the original contingency learning context or in a new context and was followed by a renewal test. Furthermore, the influence of trait anxiety, distress tolerance, and intolerance of uncertainty on approach-avoidance decisions was investigated. Exploratively, a second experiment with varying avoidance costs was conducted. Results showed that high (Study 1), but not low (Study 2), avoidance costs resulted in less avoidance behaviour. Even though there were no between-group differences, exploratory comparisons of avoiders and non-avoiders in both studies demonstrated that avoidance behaviours protected from extinction learning, resulting in the maintenance of retrospective US expectancies and a sustained preference for the safe stimulus. Finally, no renewal effect and no robust associations with the individual difference measures were found. Collectively, these findings provide insight in how avoidance behaviours maintain fear and how treatment might be improved by focusing on avoidance costs.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101710
Number of pages19
JournalLearning and Motivation
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Classical conditioning
  • Fear
  • Avoidance conditioning
  • Approach behaviour
  • Extinction
  • Virtual reality


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