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12. Avoiding the unknown: Development of a novel task to examine maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty
Uncertainty is often experienced as aversive, and individuals are motivated to avoid aversive states. Theoretical models of anxiety disorders suggest that maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty is a critical mechanism by which anxiety develops and is maintained. However, despite the hypothesized importance of maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty, there are currently no effective ways of measuring this behavior. The current study developed a new task to measure individual differences in the extent to which individuals engage in maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty. The task, called the Maladaptive Avoidance of Uncertain Task (MAUT), examined avoidance behavior that occurs in response to uncertainty, does not mitigate threat, and is costly. Unselected community members (n = 100) completed the MAUT, as well as tasks measuring threat-potentiated startle response and adaptive avoidance. The MAUT elicited the hypothesized differences in behavior across conditions: uncertain threat elicited more avoidance behavior than did certain threat and safety. Maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty in the MAUT was associated with the startle response to threat, but not adaptive avoidance. Overall, the MAUT showed the expected differences in behavior across uncertain threat, certain threat, and safety, and provides an important starting point for future research on maladaptive avoidance of uncertainty.