In a study perfect for Halloween but just released, Tashjian and collegues report on just what happens to us when we’re in a scary place (for this project, a haunted house with 17 rooms) and the social nature of fear-type responses. They share that “Threats elicit physiological responses, the frequency and intensity of which have implications for survival. Ethical and practical limitations on human laboratory manipulations present barriers to studying immersive threat. . . . The current . . . study measured electrodermal [on skin electrical] activity in 156 adults while they participated in small groups [composed of friends and strangers] in a 30-min haunted-house experience involving various immersive threats. Results revealed positive associations between . . .friends and tonic [persistent] arousal, (b) unexpected attacks and phasic [transitory, fleeting] activity . . . Findings demonstrate the relevance of (a) social dynamics (friends vs. strangers) for tonic arousal and (b) subjective fear and threat predictability for phasic arousal.” So, the more friends people toured the haunted house with, the greater their physical responses to “threats” encountered; it seems we pick up signals sent by those co-experiencing friends. Also, unexpected scary events produce more intense responses than more predictable ones.
Sarah Tashjian, Virginia Fedrigo, Tanaz Molapur, Dean Mobbs, and Colin Camerer. “Physiological Responses to a Haunted-House Threat Experience: Distinct Tonic and Phasic Effects.” Psychological Science, in press, https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211032231