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Maybe we should split up! In frightening scenarios, fear is contagious

If you don't want to be scared, go alone. If you want to stay alive, go with a friend.

By Cassidy Ward
Cassidy Haunted House GETTY

Whether we like it or not, fear is a natural and necessary part of life of being alive. When our species first came into being on the African savanna, we found ourselves smack in the middle of a robust food web that we weren’t necessarily always at the top of. Having a healthy fear of predators might have been the difference between becoming a snack and staying alive.

Scientists have studied the fear response in humans and in animals, but the laboratory setting is limited in the ways it can replicate real-world experiences. That’s why a Sarah M. Tashjian from the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology, and their colleagues, recently took their work to one of the scariest (and most fun) places in the modern world, a haunted house. Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

They wanted to find out how people react both physiologically and interpersonally, when exposed to fear generating experiences which are a little closer to real life than what can be concocted in a lab. To do that, they broke their participants, some of whom were friends, into groups and put them through a 30-minute haunted house experience. Fear response was measured through self-reporting of participants but also via a wearable sensor which measured physiological activity on the skin.

“We measured fear through self-report and electrodermal activity, which is a change in the electrical properties of the skin in response to sweat,” Tashjian told SYFY WIRE.

Cassidy Wearable For Capturing Fear Response

Participants wore the sensor while traveling through each of the haunted house’s various rooms. The researchers were also aware that part of a haunted house experience is fun, seemingly an emotional opposite to fear, and sought to mitigate that at least in part through the chosen venue. The haunted house they partnered with included rooms with typical expected scares, but also had rooms which mimicked a car crash, suffocation, and being shot, all of which are experiences closer to reality than the typical ghouls and ghosts.

“When rooms included predictable scares, people were able to regulate their body’s response, knowing something scary was around the corner. Unexpected scares evoked the highest response, that’s something we expect to see with real fear events,” Tashjian said.

Surprisingly, researchers found that people became more fearful when they were in a group, particularly if that group was made up of friends. In fact, the more friends who were in a group, the higher the measured fear response was. The team put this down to a sort of unspoken language which exists among close confidants.

“If your friends are around, your body picks up on their signals and has a higher level of arousal even in the absence of specific scares or startles,” Tashjian said. “We know from non-fear related work that friends have similar brain activity patterns when experiencing the same event, like watching a movie.”

On the surface, this seems to fly in the face of the common wisdom that there is safety in numbers. We might assume that fear would be reduced when we’re surrounded by people we trust. In some instances, this is true. Many prey animals travel and eat in groups precisely for the added protection it offers. The flip slide of that behavior is that you’re more likely to benefit from the added awareness of the group if you’re keyed into it.

“Groups serve the helpful function of making you aware of threats even if you don’t see them, through emotional contagion. When those group members are your friends, you’re even more cued into their response,” Tashjian said.

It seems that we evolved not only to be afraid, but to be especially attentive to the emotional responses of the people we’re close to. Because of that, when you’re spending time with your friends, you’re more likely to be frightened. You’re probably also more likely to stay alive.