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Fear is a contagious emotion that is amplified in a group

The fight-or-flight response is evolution’s way of preparing organisms to defend themselves or flee in front of threats from predators, and is structured by basic emotions such as rage or fear. According to a new study led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), fear is a highly contagious emotion, being strongly influenced by the social contexts in which it emerges.

The scientists used a haunted-house experience to assess 156 participants’ physiological and subjective experiences and responses to perceived threats in a safe but immersive environment. During the 30-minute visit, participants had to wear physiological-monitoring waistbands while encountering various situations mimicking threats of suffocation, oncoming speeding cars, or exposure to shots from firing squads either alone, or together with other participants.

The researchers found that participants were more scared and had heightened physical responses when the group they belonged to while visiting the haunted house was larger. On average, the more friends the participants had with them while facing the haunted house’s threats, the higher their physical responses.

“There are a lot of factors that influence how human bodies respond to threat,” said study lead author Dr. Sarah Tashjian, a postdoctoral fellow in Affective Neuroscience at Caltech. “We found that friend-related emotional contagion, threat predictability, and subjective feelings of fear were all relevant for the body mounting a response.” 

“We interpreted this to reflect fear contagion – if your friends are around, your body picks up on their signals and has a higher level of arousal even in the absence of specific scares or startles. In the lab, it is difficult to study the effects of groups on physiology.”

Dr. Tashjian and her colleagues have also discovered that participants with an initially strong response to the first room of the haunted house that they visited showed heightened responses when visiting the next rooms too. Moreover, the unpredictability of exposure to perceived threats seemed to be a major factor in increasing fear levels.

“We show that friends increase overall arousal, that unexpected scares produce more responses and higher levels of responses in the body than predictable scares, and that more frequent responses from the body manifest as feeling more afraid. And we show all of this using an intensive, immersive, live-action threat environment,” Dr. Tashjian concluded.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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