New research cites an evolutionary characteristic to explain the general tendency in humans to fear things that are approaching, even if the element is non-threatening.
Researchers believe that as our ancestors struggled for survival, 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 modern humans don’t really consider such fear, it turns out it still plays a big part in our day-to-day lives.
According to University of Chicago professor Christopher K. Hsee, Ph.D., we still have negative feelings about things that approach us — even if they objectively are not threatening.
“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.”
Hsee and his research team termed the trait, “approach avoidance,” and discuss the concept in a paper recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The team conducted a battery of 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. Marketers, for example, can 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.
“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.”
Source: University of Chicago-Booth