Our Caveman Way of Avoiding Danger

Psychiatry_Psychology.jpgYou know the scenario. You are standing at a family get together lost in thought about a stressful situation in your life when a family member approaches and with a worried tone asks, “What’s wrong?” Did you know that subconsciously they are reading the facial signals you are displaying? Why don’t they have the same reaction when your mood is happy? Well, there is an evolutionary reason. A study looking at this phenomenon showed that we recognize fear on others’ faces faster than we notice happiness.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee studied the effect of perception when it applies to reading emotion on faces. Their study was published in the APA journal Emotion. Using a trick to slow down perception times, they found that there was a measurable difference in the amount of time it takes to perceive a happy face and a scared face, such that a scared face is recognized faster. This is probably due to the shape of the eyes, as this visual clue travels faster through the human brain. The researchers’ theory is that this is a natural occurrence as it was needed millions of years ago as a type of “threat radar.” This was and is used to signal other people that something is wrong and they need to pay attention.

Since our brains respond more to fear than other emotion it is easy to see why we respond more quickly when we see a loved one with a worried or fearful look. This is as important of an evolutionary response now as it was then, just not always for the same reasons. We probably won’t face the same threats as our ancestors but it is can still be a helpful tool for avoiding disaster and harm. The best lesson to be learned is that when you see a friend or a loved one and you think they look worried and fearful you should listen to your instinct. If someone is looking at you and they suddenly look over your shoulder with a look of fear, look around! Your gut feel is probably right and you are using millions of years of signals hardwired into your brain.

We should all appreciate the evolutionary gifts we have received as they all serve a purpose. Maybe not the purpose they served for the cavemen but we can still apply these gifts today to look out for each other. One lesson we can all take away from this study is that often what we feel is all over our face for everyone to see.


Yang, Eunice; Zald, David H.; Blake, Randolph. Fearful expressions gain preferential access to awareness during continuous flash suppression. Emotion. 2007 Nov Vol 7(4) 882-886

Cressey, Daniel. Fear gets seen faster. The Great Beyond (a Nature blog). 2007.

Karen Vieira, MBA, PhD

Karen Vieira, MBA, PhD, has written about medical research, medical procedures, food ingredients, herbal remedies, pharmaceutical drugs, condo construction, real estate and computer consulting to mention a few.
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