Individual differences in avoidance learning: the role of adverse childhood experiences and intolerance of uncertainty
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Avoidance of stimuli perceived as threatening is an essential element of all anxiety- related disorders. Conditioned avoidance paradigm used to study avoidance investigates how individuals learn to respond to aversive stimuli by trying to prevent its frequency or intensity. While studies exist on the general mechanisms underlying avoidance, research on individual differences in avoidance is scarce but important not only for deepening our understanding of avoidance learning but potentially forming a basis for further studies researching the long- standing question why some individuals develop anxiety disorders while others do not. For example, people with more adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are more likely to develop an anxiety-related disorder but the mechanism behind this process remains largely elusive. Moreover, not everyone with the same amount of adverse childhood experiences develops an anxiety-related disorder. One factor that might increase people’s tendency to avoid threatening stimuli is their level of intolerance of uncertainty (IU). Hence, the aim of this study was to 1) investigate the relationship between conditioned avoidance and ACE; 2) the relationship between conditioned avoidance and IU; and 3) the moderating role of IU on the relationship between conditioned avoidance and ACE. Based on our sample of 195 participants, cluster analysis revealed individuals did differ in how often they avoided the aversive stimulus, but these differences could not be predicted by scores on ACE questionnaire or Intolerance of uncertainty scale (IUS). Further research is needed to determine whether individuals differing in adaptive conditioned avoidance differ in their tendency to avoid non-threatening stimuli, and whether any other individual differences can predict these individual differences.