Fear conditioning with film clips: a complex associative learning paradigm

Anna E Kunze*, Arnoud Arntz, Merel Kindt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: We argue that the stimuli used in traditional fear conditioning paradigms are too simple to model the learning and unlearning of complex fear memories. We therefore developed and tested an adapted fear conditioning paradigm, specifically designed for the study of complex associative memories. Second, we explored whether manipulating the meaning and complexity of the CS-UCS association strengthened the learned fear association.

METHODS: In a two-day differential fear conditioning study, participants were randomly assigned to two experimental conditions. All participants were subjected to the same CSs (i.e., pictures) and UCS (i.e., 3 s film clip) during fear conditioning. However, in one of the conditions (negative-relevant context), the reinforced CS and UCS were meaningfully connected to each other by a 12 min aversive film clip presented prior to fear acquisition. Participants in the other condition (neutral context) were not able to make such meaningful connection between these stimuli, as they viewed a neutral film clip.

RESULTS: Fear learning and unlearning were observed on fear-potentiated startle data and distress ratings within the adapted paradigm. Moreover, several group differences on these measures indicated increased UCS valence and enhanced associative memory strength in the negative-relevant context condition compared to the neutral context condition.

LIMITATIONS: Due to technical equipment failure, skin conductance data could not be interpreted.

CONCLUSIONS: The fear conditioning paradigm as presented in the negative-relevant context condition holds considerable promise for the study of complex associative fear memories and therapeutic interventions for such memories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-50
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Association Learning
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reflex, Startle
  • Reinforcement (Psychology)
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult


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