The impact of Pavlovian cues on pain avoidance: A behavioral study

Nathalie Claes*, Geert Crombez, Mathijs Franssen, Johan W. S. Vlaeyen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This experiment investigated whether Pavlovian cues predicting pain would increase pain related avoidance behavior. For this purpose, forty-two healthy participants first completed an instrumental acquisition phase, performing three different movements with a pneumatic robot arm. One movement was associated with 80% chance of painful stimulation and required the least effort to perform, another movement was associated with 50% chance and required intermediate effort to perform, and yet another movement was associated with no chance of stimulation, but required the most effort to perform. Next, participants could choose which of these movements they performed. Subsequently, participants learned to associate three different Pavlovian cues with the painful outcome, a reward consisting of two lottery tickets, or neither of these outcomes. In the test phase, comprised of free and restricted parts, these Pavlovian cues were integrated in the movement task, such that the movements were carried out in the presence of one of the cues. Contrary to our hypothesis, presenting a pain cue resulted in a relative decrease in avoidance behavior compared to the presentation of no cue, a neutral cue or a reward cue, although the safe option was still selected most often, regardless of the cues present. Possible explanations for our findings are outlined in the discussion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-83
Number of pages11
JournalLearning and Motivation
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016


  • Fear
  • Pain
  • Classical conditioning
  • Instrumental learning
  • Avoidance


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