The Role of Social Groups in the Persistence of Learned Fear

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Science  29 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5735, pp. 785-787
DOI: 10.1126/science.1113551

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Classical fear conditioning investigates how animals learn to associate environmental stimuli with an aversive event. We examined how the mechanisms of fear conditioning apply when humans learn to associate social ingroup and outgroup members with a fearful event, with the goal of advancing our understanding of basic learning theory and social group interaction. Primates more readily associate stimuli from certain fear-relevant natural categories, such as snakes, with a negative outcome relative to stimuli from fear-irrelevant categories, such as birds. We assessed whether this bias in fear conditioning extends to social groups defined by race. Our results indicate that individuals from a racial group other than one's own are more readily associated with an aversive stimulus than individuals of one's own race, among both white and black Americans. This prepared fear response might be reduced by close, positive interracial contact.

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