We’re more likely to see threatening objects as closer than they really are, a misperception that may fuel us to act in ways to avoid dangerous situations, psychology researchers at New York University and Cornell University have found.
Their findings appear in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Previous studies have found that, when faced with a threat, our body responds in certain ways that enable us to act quickly when faced with a threat: heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol all increase. But some research suggests that the body may also demonstrate its preparedness through certain perceptual biases.
The study’s three researchers—Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, Shana Cole, an NYU doctoral student, and David Dunning, a Cornell professor of psychology—sought to understand this process and put forth what they call the “threat-signal hypothesis.” It posits that we need to become increasingly prepared to act as a threat gets closer, so we’re best served by misperceiving objects as being closer to us the more threatening they are. Specifically, the hypothesis suggests that we should misperceive threatening objects as closer than non-threatening objects that evoke equally strong and negative responses, such as disgust.
The researchers tested their hypothesis through a pair of studies.
In the first, Balcetis and colleagues recruited 101 college students to participate in a study supposedly about attitudes toward “island life.” After entering the room, the students stood 156 inches away from a live tarantula that was placed on a tray on a table. The students reported how threatened and disgusted they felt at that moment and estimated the distance to the tarantula.
The results showed that the more threatened participants felt, the closer they estimated the tarantula to be. However, a different effect emerged when considering the effect of disgust. The more disgusted they felt, the further away they estimated the tarantula to be.
To pin-point the specific effect of threat, the researchers conducted a second study in which they experimentally manipulated participants’ experiences of threat and disgust and compared the effects to a case when they felt no emotions.
They recruited 48 female college students to participate in a study on “impressions.” When they arrived, the participants met a male student (a confederate in the experiment) they had never seen before.
Each participant was randomly assigned to watch one of three videos. Participants in the threat condition watched a video in which the male student talked about his love of guns, how he hunted as a hobby, and how he experienced feelings of pent-up aggression. Participants in the disgust condition watched a video in which the same male student talked about having done disgusting things to customers’ orders while working in a fast food restaurant. Finally, participants in the neutral condition watched a video in which the male student talked about the classes he was taking next semester in a neutral manner.
After watching the video, the participants were brought back into the room with the male student they just saw in the video, who sat 132 inches away from them. To get a measure of their physiological arousal, the researchers recorded each participant’s heart rate immediately before the interaction. The participants rated how “threatening” and how “disgusting” they felt the male student was at that moment. They also estimated how many inches separated them from the male student.
The results showed that the female students who watched the threatening video estimated that the male student was closer (average 55.0 cm) than the students who watched either the disgusting (average 78.4 cm) or the neutral video (average 73.9 cm). This relationship held even after the participants’ heart rate was taken into account.
In both studies, feelings of threat – but not disgust – were consistently related to participants’ estimates of distance, providing further evidence in support of the threat-signal hypothesis.
“Although fear and disgust are both negative and intense emotions, they differ in the amount of immediate action they call for,” the researchers explain. “Both fear and disgust may be associated with avoidance tendencies, but fear typically necessitates active mobilization to withdraw from or dispel potential threats, whereas disgust does not.”