Threatening Objects Appear Closer, NYU, Cornell Study Finds

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 appeared 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: 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, both of which revealed that 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.”

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