Marisa Borusiewicz

Aversive Pavlovian Conditioning in Childhood Anxiety Disorders: Impaired Response
Inhibition and Resistance to Extinction
Anxiety is one of the most common psychological conditions throughout the world, yet
even with so many people suffering from this disorder very little is known about the cognitive
developments involved in causing such internal worry. In this article, the author examines the
underlying processes of anxiety disorders, especially in the early onset of this disorders in
children. Based on previous studies done on both adults and children, Walters observed children
classified as anxious as they underwent conditioning and compared them to control group of
children ranging in age from 8 to 12. The 35 subjects were presented with a pastel pink
trapezoid accompanied by a harsh loud noise and a pastel cream triangle that was presented
without a tone. Their responses to the two were monitored through skin conductance conditioned
responses as well as self-reporting from the kids.
The article reiterated some of the material describing classic conditioning that was
covered in the textbook. Walter’s described the ideas of unconditioned and conditioned stimuli,
as well as discriminative conditioning. In this case, the unconditioned stimuli was the loud noise
and the conditioned stimulus was the pastel pink trapezoid. Concurrently, the discriminate
stimulus was the pastel cream triangle.
While the explanations of the unconditioned and conditioned stimuli were very much
repetitions of the text, Walters goes into much more detail about discriminative conditioning. In
her study, discriminative conditioning is essential in identifying whether or not the anxious
children are learning the difference between the “dangerous” trapezoid and the “safe” triangle.
In fact, the study decidedly concludes that the anxious children have an inhibited ability to
discriminate between the dangerous and the safe. This problem arises in the acquisition of the
discriminative response. All of the children in the study were able to acquire the initial
conditioned response, the anxious children responding with higher frequencies to the conditioned
response. However, the larger and seemingly more impactful difference occurs when the children
are being conditioned to discriminate. The anxious children continue to respond to the
discriminative stimulus for a longer period of time than the other children. This insinuates that
anxiety disorders are in part due to a weakened response inhibition to this stimulus. This concept
of weakening and varied responses to discriminative stimuli expands the possibilities for
understanding other psychological disorder.
The textbook describes the concept of extinction as a natural part of the conditioning
process, in which when the conditioned stimulus is no longer presented with the unconditioned
stimulus, the conditioned response reduces over time. Still, the article has a differing
interpretation, that “rather, extinction reflects that the CS has essentially two meanings—one that
is associated with the US and one that is not.” This implies that the period known as extinction
is not an impairment of the conditioned response but a second form of conditioning to the same
stimulus, yet, this time the “conditioned response” is a lack of response.
The article goes in more depth and provides insight into the effects of a lack of
extinction as a part of conditioning. The children with anxiety exhibit a need for a longer time
period for the response to become extinct. This, in turn, effect the phenomena learned in class
called spontaneous recovery. The group of anxious children have a heighted response to the
conditioned stimulus as compared to the control group given the same amount of time. Thus, the
anxious children have a natural opposition to extinction.
These results support many of the hypothesis surrounding neurological disorders. They
have numerous implications for further research, understanding, and treatment of anxiety
disorders in that they provide insight into the cognitive processes behind anxiety.