Stressor controllability modulates fear extinction in humans

Catherine A. Hartley, Alyson Gorun, Marianne C. Reddan, Franchesca Ramirez, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Traumatic events are proposed to play a role in the development of anxiety disorders, however not all individuals exposed to extreme stress experience a pathological increase in fear. Recent studies in animal models suggest that the degree to which one is able to control an aversive experience is a critical factor determining its behavioral consequences. In this study, we examined whether stressor controllability modulates subsequent conditioned fear expression in humans. Participants were randomly assigned to an escapable stressor condition, a yoked inescapable stressor condition, or a control condition involving no stress exposure. One week later, all participants underwent fear conditioning, fear extinction, and a test of extinction retrieval the following day. Participants exposed to inescapable stress showed impaired fear extinction learning and increased fear expression the following day. In contrast, escapable stress improved fear extinction and prevented the spontaneous recovery of fear. Consistent with the bidirectional controllability effects previously reported in animal models, these results suggest that one's degree of control over aversive experiences may be an important factor influencing the development of psychological resilience or vulnerability in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)149-156
Number of pages8
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Controllability
  • Extinction
  • Fear conditioning
  • Resilience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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