January 22, 2012

Threat Perception Bias

Threat perception bias refers to the tendency to interpret ambiguous stimuli as threatening. This bias has been demonstrated to be stronger in people who are generally anxious. For example, in one study, a researcher read aloud a list of homophones to two groups--anxious people and a non-anxious control group--and participants in both groups were asked to write down the words. Participants in the anxiety group were more likely than were control participants to interpret the words in a threatening sense, writing down die, slay, and pain, rather than dye, sleigh, and pane.

How does threat perception bias manifest in the real world? Example: A man who suffers from social anxiety speaks to a friend on the phone, and notices that his friend seems aloof. He might automatically imagine that his friend is mad at him for some social gaffe, rather than assuming that his friend is upset or distracted by something unrelated to the friendship. The friend's coolness is the ambiguous stimulus and the anxious man shows a bias by making a personally threatening interpretation.

Threat perception bias is usually related to long-standing or trait anxiety, but two personal experiences have convinced me that it can be induced in the span of hours:

Last week, I was watching an extremely disturbing movie--a psychological thriller that involved, among other things, cabins in the woods and creepy cult members flashing lights through the trees at night. Partway through the movie, I got up to check my phone. When I reached into my purse, my hand felt something unfamiliar and came out holding a palm-sized piece of hardware that resembled a mini-canister. My immediate thought: Someone put a grenade or some kind of explosive in my bag! I felt a stab of true fear in my belly. One second later, I identified the foreign object as the light bulb holder for the paper lantern I had received as a gift earlier that evening.

Similarly: When I was 15, I flew on an airplane alone for the first time. It was a 50-minute flight on a 14-passenger plane, and there was severe turbulence. Air pockets caused the tiny plane to plunge dramatically over and over; food and books flew off tray tables and everyone screamed and clutched their companions. I was paralyzed in my seat, terrified; it was the only time in my life I've ever really thought I was going to die. Safe at home that night, I was reading on the sofa when I heard explosions in the sky. My immediate thought: We're being bombed. One second later, I realized it was a holiday and that the noise I was hearing was fireworks.

Both situations involved instant interpretations of an ambiguous stimulus as life-threatening. I don't usually go around making such wildly inaccurate and catastrophic interpretations, and I'm convinced that my threat interpretation was induced by the respective priming effects of the movie and the turbulent plane ride.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?

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