Observational Learning and Pain-Related Fear: Exploring Contingency Learning in an Experimental Study Using Colored Warm Water Immersions

Kim Helsen*, Liesbet Goubert, Johan W. S. Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This study investigated observational learning of pain-related fear and subsequent extinction after first-hand exposure to the feared stimulus. Moreover, the specific contingencies that are learned when observing others in pain were explored. A differential fear-conditioning paradigm was used, showing video models displaying either a painful (CS+ color; aversively conditioned stimulus) or a neutral (CS color; neutrally conditioned stimulus) facial expression in the presence of a colored warm water task (WWT; observation phase). In 1 condition (open WWT cover), the model's hand was immersed in the colored liquid, while in the other condition (closed WWT cover), no contact was displayed between the model and the liquid. During exposure, participants subsequently immersed their own hand into each WWT with equal temperatures. Results revealed successful acquisition of pain-related fear. Participants with higher levels of pain catastrophizing, intolerance of uncertainty, trait fear of pain, or dispositional empathy were more prone to develop pain-related fear. Pain-related fear extinguished quickly after direct exposure to both WWTs. Contingencies between the color of the WWT and either the painful facial expressions or the assumed properties of the colored liquid were learned in both conditions. Clinical implications and limitations of the current study are discussed, providing avenues for future research in observational learning of pain-related fear. Perspective: Pain-related fear promotes the development as well as the continuation of chronic pain. A better understanding of the acquisition and extinction of this fear may help to improve pain treatment programs. Furthermore, we intended to identify individuals who are more prone to develop pain-related fear.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)676-688
JournalThe Journal of Pain
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


  • Observational learning
  • pain-related fear
  • contingency learning
  • fear acquisition
  • fear extinction


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