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Preparedness of specific phobias

Many objects that are in the subject’s immediate environment when traumatic events occur do not acquire fearful properties. Subsequently, phobias are usually found in response to a limited set of all of the possible cues in the world. Observations such as these led Seligman to propose that certain stimuli are biologically ‘‘prepared’’ to become associated with danger. According to Seligman, these prepared stimuli can acquire fearful properties after a single traumatic pairing and, once conditioned, are extremely difficult to extinguish. The types of stimuli that possess prepared properties are those that have ecological validity (such as heights or snakes), as opposed to more modern dangers (such as guns or electrical outlets).
Although Seligman’s theory makes considerable intuitive sense and there has been considerable laboratory support for his predictions, studies that examined the preparedness hypothesis have had mixed results. The only one of Seligman’s predictions that has found consistent laboratory support has been the difficulty in extinguishing responses to prepared stimuli, and this phenomenon could find alternate explanations. Combining cognitive data with the concept of preparedness, some interesting data have shown that fearful subjects are more likely to believe that aversive experiences are associated with phobic stimuli than with nonphobic stimuli. In the typical paradigm, subjects are shown slides of fear-relevant images (e.g., snakes) and fear-irrelevant images (e.g., flowers) and are given random outcomes that are either aversive (e.g., electric shock) or nonaversive (e.g., nothing). Even though there is no relationship between slides and outcomes, subjects are more likely to perceive an association between fearrelevant slides and aversive outcomes, and this effect is stronger for highly fearful subjects. This may suggest that the preparedness phenomenon is mediated by biases in the way stimulus information is processed.
However, some research has shown that these biased perceptions can be demonstrated before any experience the subject has with slides or outcomes, suggesting that the effect is based on preexperimental expectancies and not biased processing. More recently, some research has demonstrated that both preexperimental expectancies and experience play a role in the covariation phenomenon, indicating a possible role for both expectancy and processing bias in the effect.

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