Expression of conditional fear with and without awareness

Academic Article


  • Conditional responding during simple Pavlovian conditioning is often characterized as a form of implicit memory. The extent to which this type of associative learning is independent of awareness is an issue of continuing debate. Previous studies have demonstrated conditioning in the absence of awareness. However, their results have been questioned based on methodological concerns with postexperimental questionnaires. In the present study, skin conductance response (SCR) and unconditioned stimulus (UCS) expectancy were measured concurrently as participants were exposed to a differential delay fear conditioning procedure in which one tone (CS+) predicted a loud white noise, whereas a second tone (CS-) was presented alone. UCS predictability was varied on a trial-by-trial basis by presenting conditioned stimuli (CSs) at volumes just above or below the perceptual threshold. Differential UCS expectancy (awareness) was observed only on perceived trials, whereas differential SCR developed on both perceived and unperceived trials. Although perceived stimuli elicited larger SCRs, the magnitude of conditioning, indexed by differential conditioned response expression (conditioned SCR to CS+ minus the SCR to CS-), was not influenced by stimulus perception. These data indicate that conditional fear can be expressed when individuals are unaware of fear-eliciting stimuli and suggest that the degree of conditioning is independent of awareness during differential Pavlovian fear conditioning.
  • Authors

    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Knight DC; Nguyen HT; Bandettini PA
  • Start Page

  • 15280
  • End Page

  • 15283
  • Volume

  • 100
  • Issue

  • 25