Related posts: [X], [X].
Human Threat Management Systems: Self-Protection and Disease Avoidance:
Humans likely evolved precautionary systems designed to minimize the threats to reproductive fitness posed by highly interdependent ultrasociality. A review of research on the self-protection and disease avoidance systems reveals that each system is functionally distinct and domain-specific: Each is attuned to different cues; engages different emotions, inferences, and behavioral inclinations; and is rooted in somewhat different neurobiological substrates. These systems share important features, however. Each system is functionally coherent, in that perceptual, affective, cognitive, and behavioral processes work in concert to reduce fitness costs of potential threats. Each system is biased in a risk-averse manner, erring toward precautionary responses even when available cues only heuristically imply threat. And each system is functionally flexible, being highly sensitive to specific ecological and dispositional cues that signal greater vulnerability to the relevant threat. These features characterize a general template useful for understanding not only the self-protection and disease avoidance systems, but also a broader set of evolved, domain-specific precautionary systems.
Throughout history, attacks from other humans have been one of the major threats to human survival, and violent intergroup conflict appears to have been common in ancestral populations of humans and other primates. Beyond the in-group/out-group moderation, the influence of social crowding on downstream behaviours might also vary across different crowd types and contexts. Specifically, there appear to be two functionally discrete and specialized psychological systems. The human behavioural immune system is well developed and characterized by the acute emotions of fear and disgust, although both threat relevant, they are posited to represent independent biological systems: one committed to self-protection and the other dedicated to disease avoidance [previous post].
Our ancestors were the ones that survived because they relied on these well-developed self-protection systems that persist in modern humans:
[…] Thus, just as ancestral humans evolved sensory, affective, cognitive, and behavioral mechanisms that respond in adaptive ways to fitness-relevant features in the physical ecology (e.g., visual and olfactory cues that distinguish between edible and poisonous fruits), ancestral humans also evolved sensory, affective, cognitive, and behavioral mechanisms that respond functionally to fitness-relevant features in the social ecology. Some of these mechanisms are designed to promote affiliative and/or nurturant behaviors toward specific categories of individuals, such as potential mates or apparent offspring. […]
The self-protection system is activated by cues indicating physical danger, such as angry expressions, snakes and spiders, scary movies or news reports, strange men, or simply being in the dark:
[…] Not all men are equally likely to pose a threat. Given the long history of intergroup conflict in ancestral populations, members of coalitional outgroups are especially likely to be viewed as potential threats to physical safety. One implication of this is that, just as it is especially easy acquire and maintain a fearful response to non-social objects that posed significant threats throughout humans’ evolutionary history (e.g., snakes; Öhman & Mineka, 2001), it is also especially easy to acquire and maintain a fearful response to people who belong to an ecologically meaningful outgroup. […]
Simply being on a dark street in a strange city triggers a self-protective motivational system, and increases attention to, and memory for, angry male strangers, and leads one to perceive out-group members as especially dangerous:
[…] This subjective sense of vulnerability may also be elicited by specific features in the local ecological context. For example, because of humans’ relatively poor night vision and ancestral susceptibility to nocturnal predators, ambient darkness is a potent cue connoting enhanced vulnerability to physical harm. Therefore, the self-protection system is likely to be activated especially strongly under conditions of ambient darkness. Consistent with this logic, sudden noises produce especially exaggerated fear responses in people when they are in the dark (Grillon, Pellowski, Merikangas, & Davis, 1997). […]
Because diseases are imperceptible to the naked eye, the behavioural immune processes are not sensitive to diseases per se but are elicited by morphological and olfactory cues that heuristically connote the presence of diseases. [x] [x]
Consistent with the hypothesis that it is especially easy to acquire and maintain a fearful response to people who belong to an ecologically meaningful outgroup, non-Black individuals in the United States are especially slow to unlearn fearful responses to the faces of Black strangers:
The role of social groups in the persistence of learned fear [the figure of this post is taken from this study]:
We examined how the mechanisms of fear conditioning apply when humans learn to associate social ingroup and outgroup members with a fearful event, with the goal of advancing our understanding of basic learning theory and social group interaction. Primates more readily associate stimuli from certain fear-relevant natural categories, such as snakes, with a negative outcome relative to stimuli from fear-irrelevant categories, such as birds. We assessed whether this bias in fear conditioning extends to social groups defined by race. Our results indicate that individuals from a racial group other than one’s own are more readily associated with an aversive stimulus than individuals of one’s own race, among both white and black Americans.
This study used classic techniques of fear conditioning and extinction. In fear conditioning, a subject is trained to fear an otherwise-neutral stimulus—for example, by repeatedly pairing an electric shock with a picture of a blue square. Before too long the subject will show a physical, preconscious, anticipatory fear reaction when shown a blue square.
In the figure: After enough instances in which a blue square is shown and no shock delivered, the subject will “unlearn” the fear reaction. This is known as “extinction.”
Importantly, there exists one category of stimuli that humans associate more readily with aversive stimuli, to which such fear extinction is less complete. Known as “prepared” or “fear-relevant” stimuli, this category includes spiders and snakes. A subject will learn to fear both a butterfly and a snake if both images are paired with electric shock, but the aversive association with the snake will kick in more strongly and die more slowly—and incompletely. These all this by studying the lack of a return to baseline skin conductance after faces are shown in association with electrical shocks.
Mirroring the pattern observed for snakes and spiders, in the study both white and African American subjects acquired a stronger anticipatory fear response to out-group than to in-group faces, and both showed a resistance to fear extinction only for out-group faces.
Using this approach to study race differences is sceptical, but the fact that subjects do not show the same results for different races does show that something is going on. Since individuals ought to vary greatly, for interaction with racial attitudes and reported interracial contact lowering levels of fear-conditioning bias, only correlation, not causation, could be shown. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Evidently, this is indicative of differences on the individual level.
The authors point out the importance of cultural patterns in impacting individual fear-conditioning, but people nevertheless seem adapted to recognize "the other" and fear it:
"Our discovery underscores the strong bond between person and social group," said Mahzarin Banaji from Harvard University. "It shows how strong is the ‘pull’ that the groups we belong to exert on us. We can’t shake off the group easily.
Moreover, this particular effect appears to be specific to male faces in that conditioned fear towards faces of outgroup exemplars resists extinction solely when the outgroup targets are male and not female, which is consistent with the male warrior hypothesis:
The male warrior hypothesis argues that the ultimate purpose of intergroup conflict is to gain access to fitness-enhancing resources, such as food, territories and mates. From this perspective, women are a reproductive resource to be competed for (rather than against). This implies that males should not only be the agents of intergroup conflict as we have suggested above, but also the direct targets of intergroup conflict in terms of prejudice, hostility and aggression (the outgroup male target hypothesis).
Fear Extinction to an Out-Group Face:As above. Results indicated that participants’ fear response resisted extinction when the targets were outgroup males, but not when the targets were ingroup males, ingroup females or outgroup females. The results held for both White and Black American research participants toward White and Black out-group targets and were unrelated to participants’ measured level of negative attitudes against the racial out-group.