Behavior as information: “If I avoid, then there must be a danger”

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Amelia Gangemi, Francesco Mancini, Marcel van den Hout (2012): Behavior as information: “If I avoid, then there must be a danger”. In: Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 43 (4), pp. 1032 - 1038, 2012, ISSN: 0005-7916.


Background and objectives Cognitive models of anxiety disorders view safety-seeking behaviors (i.e., avoidance, washing, etc.) as playing a crucial role in the maintenance of irrational fear. An explanation of how these behaviors may contribute to the maintenance of unrealistic beliefs is that patients use their safety behaviors as a source of information about the situation (behavior as information): the behavior is clear evidence of the danger. This study investigates whether, relative to non-clinical control participants, anxious participants actually infer danger on the basis of their safety behaviors, rather than on the basis of objective information. Methods Three groups of individuals affected by anxiety disorders (31 obsessive-compulsive participants, 22 panic participants, and 17 participants with social phobia) and a group (31) of non-clinical controls rated the danger perceived in scripts in which information about objective safety vs. objective danger, and safety behavior vs. no-safety behavior were systematically varied. Results As expected, anxious participants were influenced by both objective danger information and safety behavior information, while the non-clinical controls were mainly influenced by objective danger but not by safety behavior information. The effect was disturbance specific, but only for individuals with social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Conclusions The tendency to infer danger on the basis of the use of safety behavior may play a role in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders.