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Back away, please: humans fear approaching objects

June 24, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Chicago
and World Science staff

In our long strug­gle for sur­viv­al, we hu­mans learn­ed that some­thing ap­proach­ing us is far more of a threat than some­thing that is mov­ing away. This makes sense, since a ti­ger bound­ing to­ward a per­son is cer­tainly more of a threat than one that is walk­ing away.

Though we mod­ern hu­mans don’t really con­sid­er such fear, it turns out that it still plays a big part in our day-to-day lives, a study sug­gests. Ac­cord­ing to Uni­vers­ity of Chi­ca­go Booth School of Busi­ness Pro­fes­sor Chris­to­pher K. Hsee, we still have neg­a­tive feel­ings about things that ap­proach us—e­ven if they ob­jec­tively are not threat­en­ing.

“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 said. “They tend to fear ap­proach­ing things and loom­ing events even if ob­jec­tively they need not fear,” he said.

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

In research pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy, Hsee and col­leagues con­ducted eight tests in sup­port of their the­sis and found that even non­threat­en­ing ob­jects and be­ings evoked neg­a­tive feel­ings in par­ti­ci­pants as they came clos­er. Even seem­ingly doc­ile ent­i­ties, such as deer, had a fear fac­tor at­tached to them since par­ti­ci­pants could still at­tach some un­cer­tainty to a wild an­i­mal’s be­hav­ior.

These in­i­tial in­ves­ti­ga­t­ions in­to ap­proach avoid­ance are of prac­ti­cal use in a num­ber of ar­eas, the re­search­ers ar­gued. Mar­keters, for ex­am­ple, could use this in­forma­t­ion to de­ter­mine if they should grad­u­ally move a prod­uct clos­er to view­ers in a tel­e­vi­sion com­mer­cial, or wheth­er that will ac­tu­ally harm the im­age of the prod­uct. Sim­i­lar­ly, speak­ers who tend to move clos­er and clos­er to­ward their au­di­ences dur­ing their speeches should think twice, as do­ing so may cast an un­fa­vor­a­ble im­pres­sion on lis­ten­ers.


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In our long struggle for survival, we humans learned that something approaching us is far more of a threat than something that is moving away. This makes sense, since a tiger bounding toward a person is certainly more of a threat than one that is walking away. Though we modern humans don’t really consider such fear, it turns out that it still plays a big part in our day-to-day lives, a study suggests. According to University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Christopher K. Hsee, we still have negative feelings about things that approach us — even if they objectively are not threatening. “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 said. “They tend to fear approaching things and looming events even if objectively they need not fear,” he said. “In order to survive, humans have developed a tendency to guard against animals, people and objects that come near them,” he added. “This is true for things that are physically coming closer, but also for events that are approaching in time or increasing in likelihood.” In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Hsee and colleagues conducted eight tests in support of their thesis and found that even nonthreatening objects and beings evoked negative feelings in participants as they came closer. Even seemingly docile entities, such as deer, had a fear factor attached to them since participants could still attach some uncertainty to a wild animal’s behavior. These initial investigations into approach avoidance are of practical use in a number of areas, the researchers argued. Marketers, for example, could use this information to determine if they should gradually move a product closer to viewers in a television commercial, or whether that will actually harm the image of the product. Similarly, speakers who tend to move closer and closer toward their audiences during their speeches should think twice, as doing so may cast an unfavorable impression on listeners.