Threat learning promotes generalization of episodic memory

Francesca Starita, Marijn C.W. Kroes, Lila Davachi, Elizabeth A. Phelps, Joseph E. Dunsmoor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The ability to generalize from and distinguish between aversive memories and novel experiences is critical to survival. Previous research has revealed mechanisms underlying generalization of threat-conditioned defensive responses, but little is known about generalization of episodic memory for threatening events. Here we tested if aversive learning influences generalization of episodic memory for threatening events in human adults. Subjects underwent Pavlovian threat-conditioning in which objects from one category were paired with a shock and objects from a different category were unpaired. The next day, subjects underwent a recognition memory test that included old, highly similar, and entirely novel items from the shock-paired and shockunpaired object categories. Results showed that items highly similar to those from the object category previously paired with shock were mistaken for old items more often than items from the shock-unpaired category. This finding indicates that threat learning promotes generalization of episodic memory, and is consistent with the idea that threat generalization is an active process that may be adaptive for avoiding a myriad of potential threats following an emotional experience. Enhanced generalization of aversive episodic memories may be maladaptive, however, when old threat memories are inappropriately reactivated in harmless situations, exemplified in a number of stress- and anxiety-related disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1426-1434
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Episodic memory
  • Fear conditioning
  • Generalization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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