February 24th, 2015
Some biases I’ve discussed can cause problems when we’re not aware of them and apply them inappropriately, cognitive shortcuts including the baby-face bias, the insufficient-justification effect and the blaming the victim phenomenon. However, some biases are mainly helpful. For example, when it comes to perceiving threats.
Imagine that you’re taking a swim and suddenly you see a shark approaching you. What would you do? Things that seem threatening usually motivate us to quickly get as far away as we can. This tendency is enforced by a bias in our visual perception: we misperceive threatening objects as being closer to us than they actually are.
In two recent studies, researchers of New York University tested whether we misperceive threatening objects as closer than nonthreatening objects that evoke equally strong and negative responses, such as disgust.
In the first study, innocent students entered a room, standing about 4 meters away from a tarantula that was placed on a tray on a table. Then they were asked 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. Those who were more disgusted than threatened, estimated the tarantula to be further away.
In the second study, female students were introduced to a male student they had never seen before. Then they watched one of three videos. In the threat condition, participants 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, including urinating in customers’ sodas and spitting in their food.
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.
Afterwards, the female students again entered the room where the male student sat about 3,5 meters away from them. The participants rated how “threatening” and how “disgusting” they felt the male student was at that moment. They also estimated the distance between themselves and the male student.
The results showed that the participants in the threat condition estimated that the male student was closer (average 1.4 meters) than the students who watched either the disgusting (average 2 meters) or the neutral video (average 1.9 meters).
“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.”
The studies demonstrate that this perceptual bias can be useful, as it may help to promote functional action: getting away from threatening objects. So hopefully, that shark is actually further away then you perceived it to be, making you able to quickly get out of the water before it grabs you.
Cole, S., Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2012). Affective Signals of Threat Increase Perceived Proximity Psychological Science, 24 (1), 34-40 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446953
spacial cognition, distance perception