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.