20 January 2012
The human subconscious has a bigger impact than previously thought on how we respond to danger, according to a collaborative research project between Canterbury Christ Church University and the University of Exeter.
The new study, led by three researches at the University of Exeter and Dr Fergal Jones, from the Department of Applied Psychology based at Christ Church’s Salomons Campus, found that our primitive response to fear can contradict our conscious assessment of danger. Meaning that our human response to fear is more similar to animals that previously thought.
The research also suggests that human learning, including learning in relation to fear, is best modelled by two processes: one is similar to the learning processes in animals and involves the formation of associations between the mental representations of things. The other is a hypothesis testing process that enables us to think and reason.
Part funded by Canterbury Christ Church University, this research was developed on the premise that a better understanding of human learning will help improve our understanding and treatment of clinical conditions, such as anxiety problems.
Dr Fergal Jones, Senior Lecturer in Applied Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University’s Salomon’s campus, said: “This work is part of an exciting and valuable collaboration between our Department of Applied Psychology at Christ Church and Professor McLaren’s laboratory at the University of Exeter.
“Through our collaboration we aim to develop our understanding of basic human learning processes and apply this to clinical problems, such as anxiety.”
Participants recruited to the study sat in front of a screen, on which a coloured shape sometimes appeared. Half the time, the image was accompanied by a mild electric shock. For the rest of the time, the image appeared but no shock was given.
During the trial they were asked to rate whether or not they expected a shock to be given and their ‘skin conductance’ was monitored. This technique measures the variation in the electrical activity of the sweat glands in the skin, which is an indication of the state of arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, it gives us a reading of a person’s emotional state.
Following a series of trials involving shocks, participants were more likely to predict they would not receive a shock when the image was next shown. The complementary result was that they generally anticipated receiving a shock if they had not had one for the last few images. This phenomenon of expecting good luck after a run of bad luck and vice versa, is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’.
The skin conductance responses revealed the opposite pattern. Following a series of shocks accompanying the image, their physical responses to the next image shown suggested participants were more likely to expect another shock, but that they were less likely to expect a shock after a run of no-shock trials. This pattern of responding is consistent with ‘associative learning’: associating a visual cue with a significant event, a phenomenon that is well known in animals.
Previously it has been thought that, when using this type of procedure, humans respond differently from animals because we rely on conscious reasoning, rather than associative learning to generate our expectations. This study suggests that, despite our sophisticated mental capabilities, our responses are in fact driven by these more primitive processes when in danger.
The study, by a team from Canterbury Christ Church University and The University of Exeter, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behaviour Processes. The research was supported by a Doctoral Training Studentship from the ESRC.
Notes to Editor
Other researchers working alongside Dr Fergal Jones from Canterbury Christ Church University include, Amy McAndrew , Rossy McLaren and Professor Ian McLaren, all researchers from the University of Exeter.
Canterbury Christ Church University
Canterbury Christ Church University is a modern university with a particular strength in higher education for the public services.
With nearly 20,000 students, and five campuses across Kent and Medway, its courses span a wide range of academic and professional subject areas.
- We are the third highest university in England for student employability, with 94.3% of our recent graduates in employment or further study six months after graduating*.
- Christ Church is the number one choice for local people looking to study at university in Kent (2010 UCAS).
- We are the South East’s largest provider of courses for public service careers (outside of London).
- 2012 is the University’s Golden Jubilee, reflecting on 50 years of higher education and innovation.
*2009/10 Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey