OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING AS A MECHANISM FOR TRANSGENERATIONAL TRANSMISSION OF FEAR

All Authors:
Jennifer Silvers, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, United States (Primary Presenter)
Nim Tottenham, Columbia University, New York, NY, United States

We humans do a great deal of learning by observing others, including what to fear and what to trust in our environment. Observational fear learning may be especially important early in life when children turn to their parents to gather information about their world. Yet, the vast majority of empirical research on fear learning in children has thus far focused on firsthand classical conditioning, which may fail to capture one of the primary means by which children acquire fears. To address this gap in the literature, the present study examined observational fear learning in children and adolescents (n=33; age range: 6-17 years) as they watched videos of their parent and an unfamiliar adult undergo fear conditioning. Subsequent to this acquisition learning phase, participants viewed the CS+ and CS- they previously observed in the videos (test phase). Participants demonstrated robust observational fear learning, as indicated by changes in their self-reported liking of the CS+ (a geometric shape that was paired with an aversive noise 80% of the observed trials) and CS- (a geometric shape that was never paired with an aversive noise on the observed trials). Observational learning was enhanced for one’s own parent, and this effect was particularly pronounced among children of high-anxiety parents. Parent anxiety also predicted differential prefrontal-amygdala connectivity in their children during observational learning, and this connectivity mediated the relationship between parent anxiety and learning. These results suggest that youth preferentially learn fears via observation of their parents and that learning is influenced by parental emotional traits.