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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.

Original publication




Journal article


Personality and Individual Differences

Publication Date





1001 - 1006