April 14, 2021

Defensive freezing and its relation to approach-avoidance decision-making under threat

Successful responding to acutely threatening situations requires adequate approach-avoidance decisions. However, it is unclear how threat-induced states -like freezing-related bradycardia- impact the weighing of the potential outcomes of such value-based decisions. Insight into the underlying computations is essential, not only to improve our models of decision-making but also to improve interventions for maladaptive decisions, for instance in anxiety patients and first-responders who frequently have to make decisions under acute threat. Forty-two participants made passive and active approach-avoidance decisions under threat-of-shock when confronted with mixed outcome-prospects (i.e., varying money and shock amounts). Choice behavior was best predicted by a model including individual action-tendencies and bradycardia, beyond the subjective value of the outcome. Moreover, threat-related bradycardia interacted with subjective value, depending on the action-context (i.e., passive vs. active). Specifically, in action-contexts incongruent with participants’ intrinsic action-tendencies, strong freezers showed diminished effects of subjective value on choice. These findings illustrate the relevance of testing approach-avoidance decisions in relatively ecologically valid conditions of acute and primarily reinforced threat. These mechanistic insights into approach-avoidance conflict-resolution may inspire biofeedback-related techniques to optimize decision-making under threat. Critically, the findings demonstrate the relevance of incorporating internal psychophysiological states and external action-contexts into models of approach-avoidance decision-making.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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