Explaining the Return of Fear with Revised Rescorla-Wagner Models. Journal Article uri icon



  • Exposure therapy - exposure to a feared stimulus without harmful consequences - can reduce fear responses in many mental disorders. However, such relief is often partial and temporary: fear can return after the therapy has ended. Conditioning research has identified three mechanisms for the return of fear, viz. change in physical context (renewal), the passage of time (spontaneous recovery), and an encounter with the fear-producing unconditioned stimulus (reinstatement). To understand why fear returns and thereby develop more effective therapies, we develop mathematical learning models based on that of Rescorla and Wagner. According to this model, context cues present during extinction become conditioned inhibitors (i.e. safety signals) which prevent total erasure of the threat association. Adding various mechanisms to the model allows it to explain different facets of the return of fear. Among these mechanisms is decay of inhibitory associations, which provides a novel explanation for spontaneous recovery. To make the benefits of exposure robust and permanent, one must minimize the degree to which the extinction context becomes inhibitory in order to maximize unlearning. We simulate several experimental paradigms that reduce the return of fear and explain them according to this principle.

publication date

  • January 1, 2022

has restriction

  • gold

Date in CU Experts

  • February 28, 2023 12:43 PM

Full Author List

  • Paskewitz S; Stoddard J; Jones M

author count

  • 3

Other Profiles

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 2379-6227

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 213

end page

  • 237


  • 6


  • 1