Defensive Copers Show a Deficit in Passive Avoidance Learning on Newman's Go/No-Go Task: Implications for Self-Deception and Socialization


  • This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and by a Connaught Grant from the University of Toronto. We gratefully acknowledge Jessica Aurora's help in the data collection and Phil Zelazo's willingness to read and offer advice on previous versions of the manuscript.

concerning this article should be addressed to Jordan B. Peterson, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 100 St. George St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 3G3.


Abstract The present study investigated whether passive avoidance learning was retarded by defensive coping strategies designed to minimize exposure to negatively valenced stimuli. High-anxious individuals, low-anxious individuals, and defensive copers completed a computerized go/no-go task, in which they learned when to press or not to press a button, in response to contingent positive and negative feedback. The duration that feedback remained onscreen was self-regulated. Defensive copers showed preferential reflection away from negative feedback, committed more passive-avoidance errors, and were characterized by impaired learning, overall. Further, the ratio of reflection on negative feedback to reflection on positive feedback directly mediated both passive-avoidance errors and overall learning. Defensive coping strategies, therefore, appear to interfere with passive avoidance learning, thereby fostering perseverative, dysfunctional action patterns by reducing knowledge gained from previous mistakes. Implications for the learning of effective socialization strategies, and for psychopathy—which is commonly characterized by similar passive-avoidance deficits—are subsequently considered.