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06-09-2018 | Original Article | Uitgave 3/2020

Psychological Research 3/2020

The influence of threat on perceived spatial distance to out-group members

Psychological Research > Uitgave 3/2020
Chiara Fini, Pieter Verbeke, Sophie Sieber, Agnes Moors, Marcel Brass, Oliver Genschow


A classic example of discriminatory behavior is keeping spatial distance from an out-group member. To explain this social behavior, the literature offers two alternative theoretical options that we label as the “threat hypothesis” and the “shared-experience hypothesis”. The former relies on studies showing that out-group members create a sense of alertness. Consequently, potentially threatening out-group members are represented as spatially close allowing the prevention of costly errors. The latter hypothesis suggests that the observation of out-group members reduces the sharing of somatosensory experiences and, thus, increases the perceived physical distance between oneself and others. In the present paper, we pitted the two hypotheses against each other. In Experiment 1, Caucasian participants expressed multiple implicit “Near/Far” spatial categorization judgments from a Black-African Avatar and a White-Caucasian Avatar located in a 3D environment. Results indicate that the Black-African Avatar was categorized as closer to oneself, as compared with the White-Caucasian Avatar, providing support for “the threat hypothesis”. In Experiment 2, we tested to which degree perceived threat contributes to this categorization bias by manipulating the avatar’s perceived threat orthogonally to group membership. The results indicate that irrespective of group membership, threatening avatars were categorized as being closer to oneself as compared with no threatening avatars. This suggests that provided information about a person and not the mere group membership influences perceived distance to the person.

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