Unconscious Avoidance of Perceived Threats

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.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment


    September 28th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    Yeah, I can see that not so sure that I do it unconsciously tho. For me there is usually a thought process behind it like, “Man, thats one scary guy, better move away so he can’t mug me.” or “That is a big dude! I’m staying away from that gym junkie.” Wouldn’t call it unconscious because in cases like these I made a pretty conscious effort to distance myself. Of course of I was doing this unconsciously to I wouldn’t know it! But a doubt that I am.

    Seriously, I would anyone not distance them self from a shady character? It’s just something you learn to do at a young age in order to survive, you know?

  • Nancy R

    Nancy R

    September 28th, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    Nina Irani, who is a public speaking consultant at UniqueSpeak talks about this kind of thing a lot. She helped me get over a pretty bad phobia of large presentations by working with me on some parallel contexts. It’s fascinating.

  • Sean


    September 29th, 2011 at 4:21 AM

    It’s kinda cool that we have that inherent instinct to avoid situations that we perceive to be dangerous. Those instincts do not always work or help us avoid danger but if we listen to those inner voices I think that a lot of times a whole lot of hurt could be prevented.

  • hewitt


    September 29th, 2011 at 4:51 AM

    hmm…interesting subject.and yes,it does seem to be a pretty conscious decision as Randy has pointed out in a comment here..but I think this distancing from a dangerous seeming person is just one of the many ways this works.while in this example it may not seem all that unconscious,I believe this same thing works when we choose our partner…there are many things that we think about unconsciously and either decide to work towards that person or move away.this just happens so quickly that we think it is all about “I like him (or her) but not the other person”.this liking could well be a quick decision that our mind made after a lot of consideration!

  • Regan.F


    September 29th, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    I do this all the time! The big guy could be a real great person, but I don’t wanna take chance. I would rather stay at a safe distance from anybody who seems dangerous to me.

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