Itsy bitsy spider: Fear and avoidance (generalization) in a free-exploratory virtual reality paradigm

Anke Lemmens, Elyan Aarts, Pauline Dibbets*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Most experimental avoidance paradigms lack either control over the experimental situation or simplify real-life avoidance behavior to a great extent, making it difficult to generalize the results to the complex approach-avoidance situations that anxious individuals face in daily life. The current study aimed to examine the usability of our recently developed free-exploratory avoidance paradigm in Virtual Reality (VR) that allows for the assessment of subjective as well as behavioral avoidance in participants with varying levels of spider fear. In a VR escape room, participants searched for cues to decipher a code-locked door. Opening a wooden box marked with a post-it note (conditioned stimulus, CS) resulted in exposure to a virtual crawling spider (unconditioned stimulus, US). Avoidance of the original CS and other objects marked with the CS (generalization stimuli, GSs; EXPgen condition) or non-marked (CONT condition) objects was measured via questionnaires and relative manipulation times in a novel room. We expected a positive linear relationship between US aversiveness (levels of spider fear) and (generalization of) fear and avoidance behaviors. Avoidance learning and generalization was demonstrated on both a subjective and behavioral level. Higher levels of spider fear were, overall, related to more negative emotions in response to the encounter with the spider, higher US expectancies for the GSs, and more self-reported and behavioral avoidance of the original CS and the GSs. Finally, we explored relationships between trait anxiety and intolerance of uncertainty and fear and avoidance (generalization), but no robust associations were observed. In conclusion, we confirmed the expected positive linear relationship between spider fear and (generalization of) fear and avoidance behaviors. Our results suggest that our free-exploratory VR avoidance paradigm is well-suited to investigate avoidance behaviors and the generalization of avoidance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104442
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024


  • Avoidance behavior
  • Avoidance generalization
  • Fear conditioning
  • Intolerance of uncertainty
  • Spider fear
  • Trait anxiety
  • Virtual reality


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