Inhibited personality temperaments translated through enhanced avoidance and associative learning increase vulnerability for PTSD

Michael Todd Allen, Catherine E. Myers, Kevin D. Beck, Kevin C. Kevin, Richard J. Servatius

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Although many individuals who experience a trauma go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the rate of PTSD following trauma is only about 15-24%. There must be some pre-existing conditions that impart increased vulnerability to some individuals and not others. Diathesis models of PTSD theorize that pre-existing vulnerabilities interact with traumatic experiences to produce psychopathology. Recent work has indicated that personality factors such as behavioral inhibition (BI), harm avoidance (HA), and distressed (Type D) personality are vulnerability factors for the development of PTSD and anxiety disorders. These personality temperaments produce enhanced acquisition or maintenance of associations, especially avoidance, which is a criterion symptom of PTSD. In this review, we highlight the evidence for a relationship between these personality types and enhanced avoidance and associative learning, which may increase risk for the development of PTSD. First, we provide the evidence confirming a relationship among BI, HA, distressed (Type D) personality, and PTSD. Second, we present recent findings that BI is associated with enhanced avoidance learning in both humans and animal models. Third, we will review evidence that BI is also associated with enhanced eyeblink conditioning in both humans and animal models. Overall, data from both humans and animals suggest that these personality traits promote enhanced avoidance and associative learning, as well as slowing of extinction in some training protocols, which all support the learning diathesis model. These findings of enhanced learning in vulnerable individuals can be used to develop objective behavioral measures to pre-identify individuals who are more at risk for development of PTSD following traumatic events, allowing for early (possibly preventative) intervention, as well as suggesting possible therapies for PTSD targeted on remediating avoidance or associative learning. Future work should explore the neural substrates of enhanced avoidance and associative learning for behaviorally inhibited individuals in both the animal model and human participants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number496
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAR
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology(all)


  • Associative learning
  • Avoidance learning
  • Eyeblink conditioning
  • PTSD
  • Personality temperaments
  • Rat model


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