Generalization as a basis for emotional change Perceptual and non-perceptual processes
Changing emotions from a learning perspective When emotions are viewed from a learning perspective, there are two issues that deserve attention. The first is that emotions should be viewed as “behavior”, which is defined as “any meaningful response to a meaningful stimulus”, distinguishing it from more basic reflexes. It will be clear that this definition of behavior encompasses a broad range of reactions, including motor responses like running away, screaming, or fighting, psychophysiological responses such as sweating hands, increases in respiratory frequency or heart rate, and cognitive responses such as remembering, evaluating, or ruminating. From this perspective, changing emotions can be viewed as changing behaviors. A second premise is that changes in behavior (and, hence, in emotions) are most commonly caused by learning experiences. As a matter of fact, learning refers to a relatively enduring change in responding that results from one or more experiences. If responding at moment t+1 differs from responding at moment t (i.e., behavioral change), and in the interval between t and t+1 a certain event (E) took place, one could hypothesize that this change in responding is caused by experience E. To test for the causal nature of this interpretation, a control situation is needed in which E is not presented between t and t+1. If no similar changes in responding are observed under these latter conditions, this supports the hypothesis that the behavioral change is caused by E (and not, for instance, by other factors such as physical maturation or tiredness). Procedures like the one outlined here have traditionally been used in human classical conditioning research. One type of “learning experience” that has often been investigated is the contingent presentation of two stimuli. An example is the repeated presentation of a neutral stimulus (conditioned stimulus, CS; e.g., a tone) that is contingently followed by an aversive stimulus (unconditioned stimulus, US; e.g., a shock). After several trials that constitute the learning experience, changes in responding towards the CS are typically observed, such as increased skin conductance responding, higher levels of self-reported fear, and increased escape or avoidance responses. These changes are not observed when this particular learning experience is not presented (control condition). This procedure is known as “fear conditioning” and is a royal highway to study the acquisition
of fear. Even though other affective/emotional phenomena have been investigated from a learning perspective (e.g., anxiety, disgust and more general positive/ negative affective reactions), we will focus on changes in fear responding. An example of a learning perspective on disgust is presented in Chapter 11 (by Peter de Jong). In the example described above, the contingent co-occurrence of a neutral and a threatening event resulted in increases in fear responding to the originally neutral stimulus. Other learning experiences have also been employed to study changes in fear responses. Examples include CS−only presentations after acquisition (extinction), US-only presentations with increased intensity after acquisition (US-inflation), or the contingent presentation of the CS with a US of opposite valence (as compared to the US used in acquisition; i.e., counterconditioning). All these procedures have been successfully used to study preconditions and mechanisms of (changes in) fear (e.g., increase, decrease, and reversal of the emotion).