Generalization of pain-related fear using a left-right hand judgment conditioning task

Ann Meulders, Daniel S Harvie, G Lorimer Moseley, Johan W S Vlaeyen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Recent research suggests that the mere intention to perform a painful movement can elicit pain-related fear. Based on these findings, the present study aimed to determine whether imagining a movement that is associated with pain (CS+) can start to elicit conditioned pain-related fear as well and whether pain-related fear elicited by imagining a painful movement can spread towards novel, similar but distinct imagined movements. We proposed a new experimental paradigm that integrates the left-right hand judgment task (HJT) with a differential fear conditioning procedure. During Acquisition, one hand posture (CS+) was consistently followed by a painful electrocutaneous stimulus (pain-US) and another hand posture (CS-) was not. Participants were instructed to make left-right judgments, which involve mentally rotating their own hand to match the displayed hand postures (i.e., motor imagery). During Generalization, participants were presented with a series of novel hand postures with six grades of perceptual similarity to the CS+ (generalization stimuli; GSs). Finally, during Extinction, the CS+ hand posture was no longer reinforced. The results showed that (1) a painful hand posture triggers fear and increased US-expectancy as compared to a nonpainful hand posture, (2) this pain-related fear spreads to similar but distinct hand postures following a generalization gradient, and subsequently, (3) it can be successfully reduced during extinction. These effects were apparent in the verbal ratings, but not in the startle measures. Because of the lack of effect in the startle measures, we cannot draw firm conclusions about whether the "imagined movements" (i.e., motor imagery of the hand postures) gained associative strength rather than the hand posture pictures itself. From a clinical perspective, basic research into generalization of pain-related fear triggered by covert CSs such as intentions, imagined movements and movement-related cognitions might further our understanding of how pain and fear avoidance spread and persevere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)699-716
Number of pages18
JournalBehavior Therapy
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2015
Externally publishedYes


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