Conceptual fear generalization gradients and their relationship with anxious traits: Results from a registered report

G. Mertens*, V. Bouwman, I.M. Engelhard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
121 Downloads (Pure)


A hallmark symptom of fear and anxiety disorder is generalization of fear to essentially innocuous stimuli and situations. Such generalization can occur through both perceptual and conceptually similarities. Recent studies indicate that perceptual generalization is inflated in anxiety patients and individuals prone to develop anxiety disorders, suggesting that perceptual generalization may be involved in the etiology of anxiety disorders. In the current Registered Report, we wanted to address whether conceptual generalization is potentially implicated in the development of anxiety disorders as well. Therefore, we used a novel paradigm in which the Dutch word mini [tiny] or enorm [enormous] was paired with an electric shock and assessed fear to the conceptually related words klein [small], medium [medium], and groot [large]. The sample (N = 120) consisted of healthy university students. As hypothesized, we observed clear conceptual fear generalization gradients using both self-report and psychophysiological measures. However, in contrast to our expectations, these conceptual generalization gradients were not correlated with different anxious traits (i.e., trait anxiety, intolerance of uncertainty, and behavioral inhibition). These results show that fear can generalize conceptually along a gradient, without requiring perceptual errors as postulated by traditional models of fear generalization. Instead, our results correspond well with inferential reasoning theories of fear generalization. Additionally, we discuss potential reasons for the absence of the expected correlations between conceptual fear generalization and anxious traits, such as restricted variability in both the generalization task and the sample. We conclude that the paradigm has promise for further research on conceptual fear generalization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-50
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral inhibition
  • Conceptual generalization
  • Fear generalization
  • Intolerance of uncertainty


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