Neuroticism and avoidance of ambiguous stimuli: Better safe than sorry?
Lommen MJJ., Engelhard IM., van den Hout MA.
Neuroticism predisposes to anxiety disorders, but the precise pathogenic mechanism is unknown. The aim of this study was to examine whether people with high neuroticism scores use a lower criterion for detecting danger in the face of ambiguous stimuli, and avoid a greater number of ambiguous stimuli than people with low neuroticism scores. Participants high and low in neuroticism were administered a differential conditioning task, in which one conditioned stimulus (CS+; colored circle) was followed by an electric shock (unconditioned stimulus; UCS), whereas another stimulus (CS-; different colored circle) was not. After this acquisition phase, degraded colored circles on a continuum between CS+ and CS- were presented and could be avoided by the participants within a latency of 1 or 5. s. Results indicated that the high neuroticism group avoided more degraded stimuli than the low neuroticism group, but only at the 5. s latency trials. The absence of differences at the 1. s latency trials suggests the involvement of a strategic process. Apparently, when confronted with ambiguous threat signals, people high in neuroticism use a better safe than sorry strategy. By preventing disconfirmation of irrational fears, this strategy may be involved in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd.