During human development, disgust is acquired to a broad range of stimuli, from rotting food to moral transgressions. Disgust’s expansion surely involves associative learning, yet little is known about Pavlovian disgust conditioning. The present study examined conditioned disgust responding as revealed by oculomotor avoidance, the tendency to look away from offensive stimuli. In two experiments, oculomotor avoidance was acquired to a neutral image associated with a disgusting image. However, to our surprise, participants initially dwelled on disgusting images, avoiding them only after multiple exposures. In Experiment 1, this “rubbernecking” response delayed oculomotor avoidance of the associated neutral image. In Experiment 2, we exhausted rubbernecking prior to conditioning by repeatedly exposing participants to the disgusting images. This procedure elicited earlier oculomotor avoidance of the associated neutral stimulus, essentially fast-forwarding conditioning. These findings reveal competing motivational tendencies elicited by disgust stimuli that complicate associative disgust learning.
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At the end of each stage, participants also rated the CSs in terms of how afraid, how pleasant/unpleasant, and how aroused the stimuli made them feel. These ratings were included to allow us to compare these results with a fear conditioning version of this experiment, if we were to run one in the future (we instead decided to pursue the rubbernecking finding in Experiment 2). Also, as an experimental measure of conditioning, participants rated how attractive the faces were at the end of each stage. We have omitted these measures for the sake of brevity, but we include them in the data file shared on the OSF.
We used 100% reinforcement of the CS because our main concern was documenting the oculomotor CR, not probing extinction resistance. Also, prior disgust conditioning research has generally used this contingency (e.g., Mason and Richardson 2010).
The 16 trials of acquisition and extinction were presented in two blocks to allow for potential re-calibration of the eye tracker, to allow for additional assessment of contingency awareness, and to break up the monotonous task.
Although interest is often viewed as an aesthetic emotion involving the contemplation of an object for the sake of contemplation (see Armstrong and Detweiler-Bedell 2008a, b), one can also view interest as a highly motivated state. For example, one might seek information about an unpleasant stimulus (and thus view it from a safe vantage point) to prepare for future encounters with the stimulus.
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Armstrong, T., Engel, M., Press, T. et al. Fast-forwarding disgust conditioning: US pre-exposure facilitates the acquisition of oculomotor avoidance. Motiv Emot 43, 681–695 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09770-0
- Eye movements
- Morbid curiosity