Our Fear Of Others Is Greater When We’re Alone
April 24, 2013

Our Fear Of Others Is Greater When We’re Alone

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The perceptions of individuals or communities can shift based on context, and a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that people see threats as more imminent when they are alone compared to when they are with a group.

According to two Michigan State University researchers, the visual bias of a perceived threat can change with respect to social context.

“Having one´s group or posse around actually changes the perceived seriousness of the threat,” said study co-author Joseph Cesario, an assistant professor of psychology at the university. “In that situation, they don´t see the threat quite so closely because they have their people around to support them in responding to the threat.”

Cesario and his colleague Carlos Navarrete said their study was based on previous research that showed wild hyenas in Kenya were more likely to approach the recorded calls of other, unfamiliar hyenas when they were in groups and, conversely, that they were more likely to run off when they were alone.

The Cesario and Navarrete said their study was similar — with the exception that it dealt with human perceptions of distance and potential threats.

“This is about evolutionarily significant threats, such as members of a different group coming to steal resources or attack you,” Cesario said. “The cost of not responding soon enough to a threat like that could be death or serious injury. So seeing that threat as closer allows you to respond with enough time to spare.”

“What our work shows is that having your group or coalition around you makes that kind of early responding less necessary,” he added.

The team conducted two separate studies of over 300 participants to look for a connection between psychological biases and perceptual biases, as the team examined potential “threats” from other races or communities.

White participants were first assessed for racial prejudices toward blacks and then asked to approximate the physical distance from a predominantly black community, both when the participants were by themselves and when they were part of a group.

While his study dealt with racial biases, Cesario said that a perceived threat of the ℠other´ can take many forms, including students from a rival university, as was demonstrated by a separate, unrelated study.

“So this line of research has little to do with the makeup of the group,” he said, “whether it´s members of another race or students from another college — but more to do with the question of, ℠Are you with me or not?´”

The study could be significant in understanding the psychological mechanisms behind racial biases, which are a persistent hot-button topic in American society.

While the debate of racial bias rages on, there is little doubt as to whether they are present. Study after study reveals how people from different groups are treated differently in general. A new report in the journal Pediatrics showed that black children tend to be prescribed antibiotics less than non-black children by the same physician. However, even this study is somewhat murky as the authors speculated that non-black parents may be more likely to request a prescription than their African-American counterparts.