Generalization of pain-related fear based on conceptual knowledge

Ann Meulders*, Kristof Vandael, Johan W. S. Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

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Increasing evidence suggests that pain-related fear is key to the transition from acute to chronic pain. Previous research has shown that perceptual similarity with a pain-associated movement fosters the generalization of fear to novel movements. Perceptual generalization of pain-related fear is adaptive as it enables individuals to extrapolate the threat value of one movement to another without the necessity to learn anew. However, excessive spreading of fear to safe movements may become maladaptive and may lead to sustained anxiety, dysfunctional avoidance behaviors, and severe disability. A hallmark of human cognition is the ability to extract conceptual knowledge from a learning episode as well. Although this conceptual pathway may be important to understand fear generalization in chronic pain, research on this topic is lacking. We investigated acquisition and generalization of concept-based pain-related fear. During acquisition, unique exemplars of one action category (CS+; e.g., opening boxes) were followed by pain, whereas exemplars of another action category (CS-; e.g., closing boxes) were not. Subsequently, spreading of pain-related fear to novel exemplars of both action categories was tested. Participants learned to expect the pain to occur and reported more pain-related fear to the exemplars of the CS+ category compared with those of the CS- category. During generalization, fear and expectancy generalized to novel exemplars of the CS+ category, but not to the CS- category. This pattern was not corroborated in the eyeblink startle measures. This is the first study that demonstrates that pain-related fear can be acquired and generalized based on conceptual knowledge.. Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-310
JournalBehavior Therapy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • pain-related fear
  • acquisition
  • generalization
  • category based learning
  • associative learning

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