What makes fear decrease

January 30, 2020

Going on a journey alone. Sitting in a plane for hours at a height of twelve kilometres above the Atlantic Ocean. With turbulence and all the inconveniences that are part of a long-haul flight. This is the situation Michaela B. is afraid of. If only a friend would be with her on the trip! Then she would certainly feel better.

But Michaela B. shouldn't be afraid of the situation in the plane. She could easily do without her friend as an escort. Because it would help her to have someone sitting next to her. And this person wouldn't even have to talk to her or turn to her in any other way. The mere presence would be enough to reduce her fear.

This is the result of a study conducted by a group led by Professor Grit Hein from Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany. The results are published in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science.

Physiological tension measured via skin resistance

"Our results show that fear and the resulting physiological tension can be reduced by the mere presence of another person, even if this person is unknown and does not provide active support," explains Grit Hein. She holds a professorship for Translational Social Neuroscience at JMU and investigates how social interactions effect decisions, fear and pain.

The reduced anxiety reaction occurred regardless of whether the unknown person belonged to the same or a different ethnic group. "Interestingly, the anxiety-reducing effect was stronger when the subjects perceived the other person as less similar - probably because they then assumed that the other person, unlike themselves, was not afraid," says the JMU professor.

In the study, the test subjects were listening to either neutral or fear-inducing sounds via headphones - the splashing of water or human cries. Their physical reactions to these sounds were measured via skin resistance - when anxious, the electrical conductivity of the skin changes. The unknown person that was present in the room during the tests was not allowed to say anything and remained physically aloof from the test person. This setting prevented social interaction between the two.

Follow-up studies with men and women

So far, only women have been tested in the presence of women. In follow-up studies, the Würzburg research team now also wants to measure the effects when men with men or men with women are exposed to the uncanny situation in the laboratory.

Differences may become apparent in the process. "There are hints from stress research that the gender of the present person could play a role," says the JMU professor. The findings from this research could possibly be used for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

University of Würzburg

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