Background: Dysfunctional expectations have been suggested as core features in the development and maintenance of mental disorders. Thus, preventing development and promoting modification of dysfunctional expectations through intervention might improve clinical treatment. While there are well-established experimental procedures to investigate the acquisition and modification of dysfunctional performance expectations in major depression, paradigms for investigating other important types of dysfunctional expectations (e.g. social rejection expectations) are currently lacking. We introduce an innovative associative learning paradigm, which can be used to investigate the development, maintenance, and modification of social rejection expectations.
Method: A pilot sample of 28 healthy participants experienced manipulated social feedback after answering personal questions in supposed webcam conferences. While participants repeatedly received social rejection feedback in a first phase, differential feedback was given in a second phase (social rejection vs. social appreciation). In a third phase, explicit social feedback was omitted.
Results: Participants developed social rejection expectations in the first phase. For the second phase, we found an interaction effect of experimental condition; i.e. participants adjusted their expectations according to the differential social feedback. In the third phase, learned social expectations remained stable in accordance to the social feedback in the second phase.
Conclusion: Results indicate that the paradigm can be used to investigate the development, maintenance, and modification of social rejection expectations in healthy participants. This offers broad applications to explore the differential acquisition and modification of social rejection expectations in healthy vs. clinical samples. Further, the paradigm might be used to investigate therapeutic strategies to facilitate expectation change.
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