Contemporary approaches to classical and operant conditioning are known as neo-conditioning models (e.g., Davey, 1992; Rescorla, 1988). They propose that conditioning involves processes that draw on cognitive mechanisms such as expectations and memory representations of the CS and UCS. Here, UCS-CS links are acquired because CSs are predictors of the occurrence of the UCS. To illustrate, a person with a fear of driving might learn that poorly lit, wet roads (CSs) are predictive of life-threatening motor vehicle accident (UCS). The strength of the conditioned fear is a function of two factors: (1) the strength of the UCS-CS link (i.e., subjective probability that a given CS will lead to a given UCS), and (2) the perceived aversiveness of the UCS (e.g., perceived dangerousness of motor vehicle accidents).
The neo-conditioning approach also entails a revised view of operant conditioning of avoidance behavior. Here, avoidance is not directly determined by the experience of fear, but by the individual's expectation of whether a given behavior (e.g., driving in the rain) will lead to an aversive outcome (e.g., a fatal accident). Avoidance behavior is not reinforced by reduction of fear; it is reinforced by full or partial confirmation of one's expectations (e.g., by a "close call" while driving). According to the neo-conditioning perspective, UCS evaluation (and reevaluation) can influence the acquisition, extinction, and inflation of fears. When an association between a CS and UCS has been formed, the representation of the CS (stored in long-term memory) evokes a representation of the UCS. Information about the UCS contained in this representation is evaluated, and the result of this evaluation process determines the strength of the CR. If the UCS is evaluated as aversive or noxious, this will result in a fear CR.
Mild conditioned fears can escalate into phobias when the UCS is reevaluated. To illustrate, a person might acquire a mild fear of spiders after sustaining a painful but harmless spider bite. The fear may escalate into a phobia if the person later learns that spider bites are often lethal. Thus, the intensity of the UCS is inflated from a harmless painful bite to a painful and potentially life-threatening bite. As a consequence, the nature of the CS changes (i.e., spiders now become predictive of life-endangering events) and the conditioned fear increases accordingly.
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