That snake heading towards you may be further away than it appears. Fear can skew our perception of approaching objects, causing us to underestimate the distance of a threatening one, finds a study published in Current Biology.
“Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind,” says Emory University psychologist Stella Lourenco, co-author of the study. “Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us. This has clear implications for understanding clinical phobias.”
Lourenco conducted the research with Matthew Longo, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London.
People generally have a well-developed sense for when objects heading towards them will make contact, including a split-second cushion for dodging or blocking the object, if necessary. The researchers set up an experiment to test the effect of fear on the accuracy of that skill.
Study participants made time-to-collision judgments of images on a computer screen. The images expanded in size over one second before disappearing, to simulate “looming,” an optical pattern used instinctively to judge collision time. The study participants were instructed to gauge when each of the visual stimuli on the computer screen would have collided with them by pressing a button.
The participants tended to underestimate the collision time for images of threatening objects, such as a snake or spider, as compared to non-threatening images, such as a rabbit or butterfly.
Science Brief thanks to EurekAlert.
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Study demonstrates how fear can skew spatial perception
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