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Universiteit Leiden

When all alarms go off

When all alarms go off

Everyone gets scared sometimes, but people with anxiety experience fear even when there is no direct threat around. What makes the way people typically assess dangers and the way anxious people do this so different?

A world full of danger

People who suffer from anxiety focus strongly on possible negative outcomes, and importantly, on how to avoid these outcomes. While considering negative consequences certainly helps in making good decisions, overdoing this can lead to real problems for anxious individuals. For example, anxious people might desperately try to avoid any form of transportation, such as cars, even though most people wouldn’t even want to think about living without the mobility that their car offers.

How does this behavior come to an expression? A study done at Oxford University wanted to investigate the origin of the negative bias that anxious people experience.

 

Changing environment

Just like how people can change their opinions on certain matters, they can also change the way they perceive relationships between actions and outcomes. You are able to alter this relationship by learning about the associations between the actions and possible outcomes. For example, if you are scared of getting into an accident on a very busy crossroad, you might change your usual route to a more safe one. However, if you see that the safety of that street is getting better, then you won’t avoid it anymore. This means that the way the environment changes has the power to change the perception you have of danger and might ultimately affect the actions you take.

So, you are able to update the perception of certain risks, and change your actions based on the way you evaluate these risks. You do this by weighting different actions against their possible consequences. This usually gives you a rational and useful way to assess risks and dangers. However, anxious people may have problems with learning to adapt these relationships based on the current environment. Even if the immediate threat has passed, anxious individuals don’t have their danger radar return to a normal level. This can even lead to complete avoidance of a place without there being an actual threat.

 

The experiment

In a study, researchers investigated whether highly anxious people would perform differently from low anxious people on a learning task. They would receive shocks with a varying consistency. In one part of the experiment, they would get a 75% chance of getting a shock when selecting one shape, while they would have a 25% chance to get an electric shock when choosing the other shape. Naturally, this would lead people to learn to select the 25% chance shape as they obviously would like to avoid getting a shock.  

However, after letting people do this task, the researchers changed the experiment. The shape that gave the highest chance of giving shocks now changed after a while. This meant that people had to learn again to avoid the shape that gave the most shocks. They compared how typical versus high-anxiety people would react to situations where they would receive electric shocks either consistently or not. The results showed that people with anxiety took a lot longer to learn which shape would give the most shocks.

 

Conclusions

So typically, people are able to adjust their learning based on the environment. Seeing the environment change lets you draw new statistical conclusions about how great the chance of something happening is. However, the experiment showed that people with anxiety might have a problem with updating these chances. This might lead them to not be able to flexibly change their action-outcome relationships as well as normal people would. As a result, they can keep on perceiving dangers as much more commonly occurring than normal people would.

So next time when you feel like avoiding something seemingly scary like surfing on a sea that has sharks, think about the actual chances of getting bitten.

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