Fear similarly alters perceptual estimates of and actions over gaps

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Previous research has demonstrated an influence of one’s emotional state on estimates of spatial layout. For example, estimates of heights are larger when the viewer is someone typically afraid of heights (trait fear) or someone who, in the moment, is experiencing elevated levels of fear (state fear). Embodied perception theories have suggested that such a change in perception occurs in order to alter future actions in a manner that reduces the likelihood of injury. However, other work has argued that when acting, it is important to have access to an accurate perception of space and that a change in conscious perception does not necessitate a change in action. No one has yet investigated emotional state, perceptual estimates, and action performance in a single paradigm. The goal of the current paper was to investigate whether fear influences perceptual estimates and action measures similarly or in a dissociable manner. In the current work, participants either estimated gap widths (Experiment 1) or were asked to step over gaps (Experiment 2) in a virtual environment. To induce fear, the gaps were placed at various heights up to 15 meters. Results showed an increase in gap width estimates as participants indicated experiencing more fear. The increase in gap estimates was mirrored in participants’ stepping behavior in Experiment 2; participants stepped over fewer gaps when experiencing higher state and trait fear and, when participants actually stepped, they stepped farther over gap widths when experiencing more fear. The magnitude of the influence of fear on both perception and action were also remarkably similar (5.3 and 3.9 cm, respectively). These results lend support to embodied perception claims by demonstrating an influence on action of a similar magnitude as seen on estimates of gap widths.




Geuss, M. N., McCardell, M. J., & Stefanucci, J. K. (2016). Fear similarly alters perceptual estimates of and actions over gaps. PLoS ONE, 11(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158610

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