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The impact of prior and ongoing threat on the false alarm threshold for facial discrimination.

BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Perceptual adaptations that facilitate rapid responses to threats can also lead to false alarms, or the failure to discriminate safe stimuli from signals of threat. We examined the impact of varying degrees of threat on false alarms in the perceptual discrimination of faces along the dimension of emotion (Experiment 1) or identity (Experiment 2). METHODS: Participants first trained to discriminate between a target and nontarget face. Next, we tested their ability to identify the target in randomized presentations of the target, the nontarget, and nine novel stimuli morphed in 10% increments of similarity from the target to the nontarget. The task was completed under one of three randomized conditions: 1) Ongoing-Threat paired the target with an aversive outcome in both phases; 2) Prior-Threat paired the target with an aversive outcome in the training phase only; and 3) No-Threat paired the target with a neutral outcome in the training phase only. RESULTS: In Experiment 1 (N = 90), Ongoing-Threat lowered the false alarm threshold for facial discrimination based on anger intensity compared to Prior-Threat and No-Threat. In Experiment 2 (N = 90), Ongoing-Threat and Prior-Threat each lowered the false alarm threshold for identity-based discrimination compared to No-Threat. LIMITATIONS: The experiment did not measure generalization of threat responses. CONCLUSION: Associating a facial expression or identity with threat leads to faster but less accurate discrimination of faces with similar features, particularly under conditions of ongoing threat. These experiments provide an avenue for examining the parameters that impact false alarms, which play a key role in anxiety disorders.

Authors: Papini S; Dunsmoor JE; Smits JAJ

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2021 Mar;70:101619. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2020.101619. Epub 2020 Oct 1.

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