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Papers of the Week

Papers: 24 Sep 2022 - 30 Sep 2022

Human Studies

2022 Sep 20


Generalization of pain-related avoidance behavior based on de novo categorical knowledge.


Glogan E, Gatzounis R, Bennett M P, Holthausen K, Meulders A
Pain. 2022 Sep 20.
PMID: 36149790.


People with chronic pain often fear and avoid movements and activities that were never paired with pain. Safe movements may be avoided if they share some semantic relationship with an actual pain-associated movement. The current study investigated whether pain-associated operant responses (movements) can become categorically associated with perceptually dissimilar responses, thus motivating avoidance of new classes of safe movements – a phenomenon known as category-based avoidance generalization. Using a robotic arm, two groups were trained to categorize arm-movements in different ways. Subsequently, the groups learned through operant conditioning, that an arm-movement from one of the categories was paired with a high probability of pain, while the others were paired with either a medium probability, and no pain (acquisition phase). Self-reported pain-related fear and pain-expectancy were collected as indices of fear learning. During a final generalization test phase, the movements categorically related to those from the acquisition phase were made available but in the absence of pain. Results showed that the generalization of outcome measures depended on the categorical connections between arm-movements, that is, the groups avoided and feared the novel generalization movement categorically related to the pain-associated acquisition movement, depending on how they had previously learned to categorize the movements. This suggests that operant pain-related avoidance can generalize to safe behaviors, which are not perceptually, but categorically, similar to a pain-associated behavior. This form of pain-related avoidance generalization is problematic because category-based relations can be extremely wide reaching and idiosyncratic. Thus, category-based generalization of operant pain-related avoidance merits further investigation.