Ethical considerations can limit the use of traditional unconditional stimuli (US), such as electric shock and loud tones, when used in a human aversive Pavlovian conditioning procedure. The risk of the US causing pain or excessive anxiety is a particular concern when testing sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, and those with psychological or neurodevelopmental disorders. Two experiments used a differential conditioning procedure to determine whether an unpleasant sound (metal scraping on slate) could support the acquisition and extinction of conditioned responses to the same extent as either electric shock or a 100 dB(A) tone US. Experiment 1 (N = 48) demonstrated equivalent or superior conditioning effects for the signal-based learning measures of US expectancy, skin conductance responses, and heart rate. Experiment 2 (N = 57) yielded similar outcomes in the affective-based learning measures of startle blink modulation and pleasantness ratings. The results support the use of an unpleasant sound as a US in human Pavlovian conditioning experiments.
- Pavlovian conditioning
- Unconditional stimulus