Why do humans see threats when there are none?
How often do expect something bad to happen?
Or something good, for that matter?
I recently came across a fascinating piece of research into how we as humans perceive the frequency of when we expect things to happen.
In 2018, David Levari et al published the research entitled Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment
While the title may be a mouthful, the study wanted to see whether what you were expecting to see affected what you actually saw.
They showed participants a series of images to be rated compared to one another, and asked the participants to identify what was on the screen, such as:
- identify the colour of dots on a screen
- identify the expression a picture of a face was making (such as a neutral face or a threatening face)
The participants were shown a large number of images at the beginning to get used to the images.
But then the participants slowly decreased the frequency of certain types of images compared to what the participants saw at the beginning.
For example, the researchers decreased the proportion of dots which were blue, and decreased the proportion of faces which were threatening.
- When the blue dots became more rare, the participants began labelling more of the purple dots as blue
- When threatening faces became more rare, the participants began labelling more of the neutral faces as threatening
People had become accustomed to seeing threatening faces, and so even when these became much more rare, the participants were expecting to see more of them, and therefore expanded what they considered threatening to include the faces which they previously would only have seen as neutral.
Apparently, this “prevalence-induced concept change” occurred even when participants were warned about it and even when they were instructed and paid to resist it.
Something in our brains appears to be hardwired to seek out things which we expect to be common, especially threats, and see them even when they are not there.
This may have had greater value in our evolutionary past, where there were predators, insecure food sources or more threats from new people from outside of your tribe. But in our modern society, the fact is that most of these previous threats have reduced to such a degree that they are such low risk as to be no threat at all.
And yet, out brain is primed to expect to see them.
The authors of the paper see a number of implications of these results:
This phenomenon has broad implications that may help explain why people whose job is to find and eliminate problems in the world often cannot tell when their work is done.
Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them.
This may explain some of the reasons why decision-makers react so negatively to creative ideas.
If their role is to search for and prevent problems, they are likely to find problems with an idea even if these do not exist in reality.
It also may help to explain perfectionism and impostor syndrome, where creative people fear potential future feedback that they haven’t even received yet.
So if all you can see or find is negative, ask yourself whether it really is that bad.
Or whether what you’re seeing as negative is actually not that bad at all.