New findings on fear and anxiety.
For all the germs and viruses we humans pass among ourselves, we also spread something much more useful: fear.
Fear warns us of imminent danger, and it spreads in part through signs of others' fright. The obvious signals include scared faces and screams, but researchers have found that scent, too, can help us detect emotional ripples in our environment. When the nose picks up chemosignals from the sweat of distressed people, we may not be consciously alarmed, but our brains take note.
Our instinctual response includes raised brows and eyelids, which studies show increase range of vision, quicken eye movement, and help us determine where others are looking—all useful in an emergency. Seeing fearful faces, suggests a recent study, also influences attentional capacity, inducing us to take in a broader array of information than usual.
After catching the fear, we may continue the chain reaction—alerting others with our own wide-open eyes, stunned cries or chemical-rich sweat.
Here Comes the Burn
Dreading a stressful social experience, like rejection, could make it sting all the more. Research suggests that elevated fear of physical pain predicts that a person will perceive pain more intensely, and a paper in the journal PAIN found that, in a similar way, fear of social pain predicted the intensity of subjects' distress when they were excluded in a virtual game. —Matt Huston
The Specter of Crime
Our fear of crime is often disproportionate to the actual risk we face, research shows. What influences our judgment? Some individuals are more prone to fear than others, but aspects of our community can also influence how much danger we think we're in. —Amanda Glickman
People who think their neighborhood is well kept worry less about crime, recent studies indicate. The "broken windows" theory posits that fixing and maintaining infrastructure can deter crime; at the very least, it seems, communal efforts to take care of busted fixtures and eyesores could help everyone feel safer.
All together now
Researchers at University of Missouri-Kansas City and University of Texas-San Antonio gauged "social cohesion" in neighborhoods by asking people how many locals they knew by name. They found that regardless of the crime rate, residents with more robust local social networks were less fearful.
Home sweet home
Our fear of crime extends only so far outside our backyards. A University of Otago study showed that urban New Zealanders' feelings of vulnerability increased with the level of crime in their immedate neighborhood—but crime in surrounding neighborhoods had no such impact.