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Abstract

Although fear conditioning is an important psychological construct implicated in behavioral and emotional problems, little is known about how it develops in early childhood. Using a differential, partial reinforcement conditioning paradigm, this longitudinal study assessed skin conductance conditioned responses in 200 children at ages 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 years. Results demonstrated that in both boys and girls: (1) fear conditioning increased across age, particularly from ages 5 to 6 years, (2) the three components of skin conductance fear conditioning that reflect different degrees of automatic and controlled cognitive processes exhibited different developmental profiles, and (3) individual differences in arousal, orienting, and the unconditioned response were associated with individual differences in conditioning, with the influence of orienting increasing at later ages. This first longitudinal study of the development of skin conductance fear conditioning in children both demonstrates that children as young as age 3 years evidence fear conditioning in a difficult acquisition paradigm, and that different sub-components of skin conductance conditioning have different developmental trajectories.