Jill de Ron

University of Amsterdam
Psychological Methods

A Formal Theory of Fear

In many disorders, fear and anxiety play an essential role. The best-known examples are phobias, which involve fears directed at a specific object (e.g., snakes). But many other disorders also involve anxiety-related processes (e.g., panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder; Barlow, 1988). Anxieties are almost always implicated in a feedback loop with behavior: Fear of an object leads one to avoid that object, and avoidance of an object precludes experience with that object. That is arguably the evolutionary function of fear. We avoid potentially dangerous situations, which minimizes harm and, in the long run, promotes survival. However, in anxiety disorders, fear does no longer protect from harm but becomes harmful in itself, and the person refrains from engaging in experiences known to diminish fear (Reiss, Peterson, Gursky, & McNally, 1986). This Ph.D. research aims to investigate through which mechanisms adaptive, healthy behavior (i.e., fear-avoidance) can spiral into an unhealthy state seen in specific anxiety disorders, phobias, and panic disorders.

The research will be embedded in the Theory Construction Methodology, coined by Borsboom and colleagues (2020). The first project develops a formal theoretical model of the fear-avoidance loop to gain insights into how fear and avoidance perpetuate each other in a self-sustained feedback loop. The second project expands the fear-avoidance loop by incorporating feedback from the environment through reinforcement learning algorithms (see Sutton and Barto, 2018, for an introduction to reinforcement learning). The final project builds on the first two projects by implementing a graphical program to build formal theories from scratch without the need for a mathematical or computational background. The combined efforts of these projects will lead to (1) a better understanding of adaptive and disruptive fear responses and (2) a practical framework for formal theory construction in psychopathology, allowing us to better understand the development and dynamics of mental disorders.

Prof. Dr. Denny Borsboom, dr. Donald Robinaugh

Financed by
VICI-Grant Denny Borsboom