Anxiety, Avoidance, and Sequential Evaluation

Samuel Zorowitz, Ida Momennejad, Nathaniel D. Daw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Anxiety disorders are characterized by a range of aberrations in the processing of and response to threat, but there is little clarity what core pathogenesis might underlie these symptoms. Here we propose that a particular set of unrealistically pessimistic assumptions can distort an agent’s behavior and underlie a host of seemingly disparate anxiety symptoms. We formalize this hypothesis in a decision-theoretic analysis of maladaptive avoidance and a reinforcement learning model, which shows how a localized bias in beliefs can formally explain a range of phenomena related to anxiety. The core observation, implicit in standard decision-theoretic accounts of sequential evaluation, is that the potential for avoidance should be protective: If danger can be avoided later, it poses less threat now. We show how a violation of this assumption—via a pessimistic, false belief that later avoidance will be unsuccessful—leads to a characteristic, excessive propagation of fear and avoidance to situations far antecedent of threat. This single deviation can explain a range of features of anxious behavior, including exaggerated threat appraisals, fear generalization, and persistent avoidance. Simulations of the model reproduce laboratory demonstrations of abnormal decision-making in anxiety, including in situations of approach–avoid conflict and planning to avoid losses. The model also ties together a number of other seemingly disjoint phenomena in anxious disorders. For instance, learning under the pessimistic bias captures a hypothesis about the role of anxiety in the later development of depression. The bias itself offers a new formalization of classic insights from the psychiatric literature about the central role of maladaptive beliefs about control and self-efficacy in anxiety. This perspective also extends previous computational accounts of beliefs about control in mood disorders, which neglected the sequential aspects of choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalComputational Psychiatry
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology (miscellaneous)


  • anxiety
  • avoidance
  • decision theory
  • fear generalization


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