Fear Of Approaching Objects Is A Common Human Evolutionary Trait
June 24, 2014

Fear Of Approaching Objects Is A Common Human Evolutionary Trait

Alan McStravick for www.redorbit.com - Your Universe online

Whether in a darkened theater with the dim flash of light from behind projecting the latest and greatest horror film on the screen before us or progressing slowly down a hallway, our back to the wall and the pulsating rhythmic flash of a strobe light magnifying the tension in a haunted house, we humans are never more frightened than when an object or being lunges directly at us. This fear is born from millennia of evolutionary refinement.

We have learned that our survival is, in too many situations, threatened when we are being approached. This holds true whether the being approaching us is a Bengal tiger or Bambi. The perceived gentleness of the creature cannot remove the innate fear in the back of our mind that tells us even a deer can be unpredictable and could potentially cause us harm.

Not surprisingly, we are not seized by the same fear when an object, person or creature is moving in a direction away from us. Though, according to a study team comprised of researchers from the University of Chicago (UC) Booth School of Business and the University of Wisconsin (UW), this makes sense. Reverting to the example of the Bengal tiger, one bounding in your general direction is certainly more of a threat than one that is walking away.

Of course, when was the last time you were face-to-face with a Bengal tiger. Or any mortal threat, actually. The modern human probably believes our continued domestication and civilization has mitigated our exposure and reactions to these fears. But according to UC business professor Christopher K. Hsee, humans are still possessed by negative feelings with regard to things that approach us. This holds true of objects, people, creatures and, interestingly, time, regardless of whether or not it likely poses a mortal threat.

"In order to survive, humans have developed a tendency to guard against animals, people and objects that come near them," Hsee explains. "This is true for things that are physically coming closer, but also for events that are approaching in time or increasing in likelihood."

The team's study, entitled “Approach Aversion: Negative Hedonic Reactions Toward Approaching Stimuli,” was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Lead author Hsee was assisted in the study by UC Booth doctoral student Yanping Tu and with Zoe Y. Lu and Bowen Ruan of UW. Their results suggest that approach avoidance, the fear of both physical and ethereal things approaching you, is actually an innate tendency.

To arrive at their results, the team performed a series of eight tests meant to support their hypothesis. After testing, they learned even nonthreatening objects and beings were able to elicit negative feelings in the study participants as they came ever closer. They note even a docile deer had a fear factor attached to it as participants were able to attach a modicum of uncertainty to the behavior of the wild animal.

Hsee and his team believe their findings will be of important practical use in a number of areas. As an example, they discuss how their findings could be used in future advertising schemes to help marketers of products decide the rate of approach for the product in the television commercial. Should they gradually move the product closer to the viewer or will that negatively affect the image of the product? For those who engage in public speaking, the findings could assist them in deciding if and when they move closer to their audience during their presentation so as not to inadvertently spark the approach avoidance of the attendees.

"Approach avoidance is a general tendency, humans don't seem to adequately distinguish between times they should use it and when they should not," Hsee adds. "They tend to fear approaching things and looming events even if objectively they need not fear."