“That’s a big knife!”: Threatening objects loom larger
We’ve seen this happen in childhood cartoons as the villain draws a weapon and it appears oddly over-sized to the threatened victim. Or in the strangely dissociative state we can slip into if a weapon is displayed threateningly in a seemingly safe place–like a bank. It is as though we are watching with disbelief as the seemingly huge weapon becomes the focal point of our attention.
Thanks to social scientists though, we now know it isn’t just us (or those childhood cartoons) engaging in idiosyncratic flights of fancy. It really is true! Researchers speculated that if we need to be prepared for a response to real threat–it would only make sense that we should misperceive threatening objects as being closer to us than non-threatening objects. So, they naturally designed a series of studies to examine this hypothesis.
In the first study, 101 college students entered a room and stood 156 inches [that would be 13 feet] away from a live tarantula placed on a tray on a table. They were then asked how “threatened and disgusted” they felt at that moment and estimated their distance (in inches) from the tarantula. Those students who were more threatened thought the scary spider was closer to them. And oddly, those who were disgusted, saw the nasty spider as further away.
So the researchers thought they would investigate the relationship of threat and disgust compared to experiencing no particular emotions. This time they recruited 48 female college students. who were introduced to a previously unknown to them male student who was actually a part of the experiment. Then the female participants watched one of three videos featuring the male they had just met.
In the “threat” video, the male student discussed his love of holding guns, hunting and his pent-up aggressions that he found no way to release in the city.
In the “disgust” video, the male student talked about having worked in a fast food restaurant and urinating in customer’s drinks and spitting in their food.
In the “neutral” video, the male student talked about classes he was taking the next semester in a neutral voice.
After they watched the video (either the threat, disgust, or neutral video) the female students were returned to a room with the male student who now sat 132 inches away from them. (This would be 11 feet which is closer than the tarantula had been in the first experiment.) The female’s heart rates were measured and they were asked to rate how threatening or how disgusting the male student was to them. Then, they were asked to guess how many inches the male student was away from them. Females who had watched the threatening video thought the man was closer to them (an average of 55 inches). Females who had watched the disgusting video thought the man was further away from them (an average of 78.4 inches) as did those who’d watched the neutral video (an average of 73.9 inches).
This is not the time for cracks about how horrible women are in estimating distances but it does seem odd that someone sitting 11 feet away from you would be estimated to be less than 4.5 to 6.5 feet away. Even those in the neutral condition underestimated by almost half. The researchers comment that females are “more sensitive to affective signals, particularly those of threat, than men”. Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see if male research participants would react similarly in (under)estimating distances.
As for litigation advocacy, this is actually an intriguing piece of research. What it says is that when people are threatened, they see your defendant as looming larger and much scarier than they will if they are disgusted. What is missing is the information as to how they will judge those behaviors. Are they likely to be harsher when your defendant is scary or when your defendant is just plain gross?
Obviously, you will want to mitigate either scary (i.e., threatening) or gross (i.e., disgusting) judgments but the behavior your defendant engaged in remains. While you can further mitigate by stressing situational factors in your client’s behavior, we will keep an eye on the research for ideas on variations in punishment and scary or gross defendants.
Cole, S., Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2012). Affective Signals of Threat Increase Perceived Proximity Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446953