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Threatening objects appear nearer to us: Study

Posted on Dec 12, 09:03PM | IANS

We misperceive threatening objects, such as a hairy spider or an angry mob, as being closer to us so that we can prepare ourselves to act fast, says a new research.

The study by psychological scientist Emily Balcetis of New York University and colleagues suggests that our visual misperception may actually help motivate us to get out of harm's way. Our heart rate and blood pressure ramp up, and we produce more of the stress hormone cortisol.

The researchers say that if we need to be prepared to act as a threat gets closer, then we're best served by misperceiving objects as being closer to us the more threatening they are.

This 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 journal Psychological Science reports.

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 about 396 cm 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, according to a New York statement.

The results showed that the more threatened participants felt, the closer they estimated the tarantula to be. But a different effect emerged when considering the effect of disgust. The more disgusted they felt, the further away they estimated the tarantula to be.

They also recruited 48 female college students to participate in a study on "impressions". When they arrived, the participants met a male student they had never seen before (the male student was actually in on the experiment).

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.

The results showed that the female students who watched the threatening video estimated that the male student was closer (average 55 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.