Research reveals power of the subconscious in human fear

January 18, 2012

The human subconscious has a bigger impact than previously thought on how we respond to danger, according to research led by the University of Exeter. Published today, the study shows that our primitive response to fear can contradict our conscious assessment of danger.

The findings have implications for how , such as phobias, are treated. The research also suggests we share a primitive response to fear with other animals, despite being able to consciously anticipate and assess danger.

Participants recruited to the study sat in front of a screen, on which a coloured shape sometimes appeared. Half the time, the image was accompanied by a mild electric shock. For the rest of the time, the image appeared but no shock was given.

During the trial they were asked to rate whether or not they expected a shock to be given and their 'skin conductance' was monitored. This technique measures the variation in the of the in the skin, which is an indication of the state of arousal of the . In other words, it gives us a reading of a person's .

Following a series of trials involving shocks, participants were more likely to predict they would not receive a shock when the image was next shown. The complementary result was that they generally anticipated receiving a shock if they had not had one for the last few images. This phenomenon of expecting good luck after a run of bad luck and vice versa, is known as the 'gambler's fallacy'.

The skin conductance responses revealed the opposite pattern. Following a series of shocks accompanying the image, their physical responses to the next image shown suggested participants were more likely to expect another shock, but that they were less likely to expect a after a run of no-shock trials. This pattern of responding is consistent with 'associative learning': associating a visual cue with a significant event, a phenomenon that is well known in animals.

Previously it has been thought that, when using this type of procedure, humans respond differently from animals because we rely on conscious reasoning, rather than associative learning to generate our expectations. This study suggests that, despite our sophisticated mental capabilities, our responses are in fact driven by these more primitive processes when in danger.

Lead author, Professor Ian McLaren of the University of Exeter said: "This research clearly shows that, in these circumstances, our reaction to a fear-provoking stimulus depends on a primitive response caused by associative learning. This is something we share with other animals.

"This could have important practical implications. Now that we know that associative processes are implicated in our response to fear-inducing stimuli, we need to consider the implications for the ways in which we treat anxiety and ."

Explore further: Light switch: Study finds increased light may moderate fearful reactions

More information: This study, by a team from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christchurch University, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behaviour Processes.

Related Stories

Light switch: Study finds increased light may moderate fearful reactions

August 10, 2011
Biologists and psychologists know that light affects mood, but a new University of Virginia study indicates that light may also play a role in modulating fear and anxiety.

Anxious searchers miss multiple objects

June 15, 2011
A person scanning baggage or X-rays stands a better chance of seeing everything they're searching for if they aren't feeling anxious, according to a new laboratory experiment.

What will people do for money?

April 8, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- At the April 4, 2011 annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society the subject of moral dilemmas and what people would really do was addressed. In a study presented by Oriel FeldmanHall of Cambridge ...

Recommended for you

Probing how Americans think about mental life

October 20, 2017
When Stanford researchers asked people to think about the sensations and emotions of inanimate or non-human entities, they got a glimpse into how those people think about mental life.

Itsy bitsy spider: Fear of spiders and snakes is deeply embedded in us

October 19, 2017
Snakes and spiders evoke fear and disgust in many people, even in developed countries where hardly anybody comes into contact with them. Until now, there has been debate about whether this aversion is innate or learnt. Scientists ...

Dutch courage—Alcohol improves foreign language skills

October 18, 2017
A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool, Maastricht University and King's College London, shows that bilingual speakers' ability to speak a second ...

Inflamed support cells appear to contribute to some kinds of autism

October 18, 2017
Modeling the interplay between neurons and astrocytes derived from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Brazil, say innate ...

Study suggests psychedelic drugs could reduce criminal behavior

October 18, 2017
Classic psychedelics such as psilocybin (often called magic mushrooms), LSD and mescaline (found in peyote) are associated with a decreased likelihood of antisocial criminal behavior, according to new research from investigators ...

Taking probiotics may reduce postnatal depression

October 18, 2017
Researchers from the University of Auckland and Otago have found evidence that a probiotic given in pregnancy can help prevent or treat symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.