People avoid situations that present imminent threat. But a new study suggests that people also engage in avoidant behaviors when a threat is unconsciously perceived. Natalie A. Wyer and Guglielmo Calvini, both of the University of Plymouth, tested their theory that people would physically distance themselves from people who presented an unconscious threat. “Upon encountering an individual who (by virtue of physical appearance or membership in a negatively stereotyped group) is associated with hostility or aggression, one’s spontaneous response is likely to be to move away (e.g., by crossing the street or taking a seat on the other side of the room),” said the researchers. In order to introduce the threatening scenario to the participants, the researchers showed 52 undergraduate students a picture of a man dressed in a hooded sweatshirt (the prime group) or a man in neutral clothing. After viewing the images, all of the participants completed an attention task to measure their anxiety levels. Upon completion of the task, the participants were then placed in a room and told they would be meeting another individual. The clothing of the individual, the hooded sweatshirt, was present in the room when they arrived. The team believed that the primed group would be sensitive to the sweatshirt and would distance themselves from the chair.
The results of the study confirmed the team’s hypothesis. “An independent-samples t-test comparing participants’ seating distance revealed that those in the hoodie prime condition sat significantly farther than did those in the neutral prime condition,” said the researchers. “Here, avoidance emerged among participants for whom images of hoodies were primed, as a response to someone who was not themselves believed to be a hoodie.” Therefore, the prime group exhibited an increased sensitivity to threatening stimuli. The team concluded, “The present experiment establishes, for the first time, that subliminal exposure to a threatening out-group produces not only cognitive and behavioral responses but also affective responses.”
Wyer, N. A., & Calvini, G. (2011, May 30). Don’t Sit So Close to Me: Unconsciously Elicited Affect Automatically Provokes Social Avoidance. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023981
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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