Since the dawn of cognitive neuroscience, emotions have been recognized to impact on several executive processes, such as action inhibition. However, the complex interplay between emotional stimuli and action control is not yet fully understood. One way to measure inhibitory control is the stop-signal task (SST), which estimates the ability to cancel outright an action to the presentation of a stop signal by means of the stop-signal reaction times (SSRTs). Impaired as well as facilitated action control has been found when faced with intrinsic emotional stimuli as stop signals in SSTs. Here, we aimed at investigating more deeply the power of negative stimuli to influence our action control, testing the hypothesis that a previously neutral stimulus [i.e., the image of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)], which has been conditioned through vicarious fear learning, has the same impact on reactive action inhibition performance as an intrinsically negative stimulus (i.e., a fearful face or body). Action control capabilities were tested in 90 participants by means of a SST, in which the stop signals were represented by different negative stimuli. Results showed that the SARS-CoV-2 image enhanced the ability to suppress an ongoing action similarly to observing fearful facial expressions or fearful body postures. Interestingly, we found that this effect was predicted by impulsivity traits: for example, the less self-control the participants had, the less they showed emotional facilitation for inhibitory performance. These results demonstrated that vicarious fear learning has a critical impact on cognitive abilities, making a neutral image as threatening as phylogenetically innate negative stimuli and able to impact on our behavioral control.


© 2022 Battaglia, Cardellicchio, Di Fazio, Nazzi, Fracasso and Borgomaneri. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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Battaglia, S., Cardellicchio, P., Di Fazio, C., Nazzi, C., Fracasso, A. & Borgomaneri, S. 2022, 'The influence of vicarious fear-learning in "infecting" reactive action inhibition', Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 16, article no: 946263. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2022.946263

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Last updated: 28 July 2022
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