Darwin's Subterranean World

Evolution, Mind, and Mating Intelligence

Blog of Horrors: Happy Halloween from New Paltz

Halloween thoughts from evolutionary psych students ... **creepy**

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about the evolutionary psychology of the Zombie Apocolypse. We talked about this in my Evolutionary Psychology class and students seemed to like it. This led to the idea of a guest blog with creeped-out Halloween-esque, ghoulish ideas - explained by the principles of Evolutionary Psychology. Ace students Nicole Pemberton and Peter Marinelli took me up on this! Make sure to check your surroundings and turn your lights on - you're about to be creeped out by these two guest blogs!

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The Evolutionary Psychology of The Vasovagal Syncope Response...Or Why Vampires are Scary!

GUEST BLOGGER: Nicole Pemberton

Vampires have always been a staple during Halloween season, with choppers, capes and fake blood oozing from costumes from trick-or-treating kids. In recent years vampires have received a make-over, transforming from Dracula in the late 1800’s to the newest cult classic on televison, True Blood. The show is filled with bites, blood that can heal injuries and even act as a burst of energy if consumed. It has received rave reviews and has become a cultural phenomenon ... yet...people are still petrified of blood! How is it possible that we can watch the gore and guts on television, yet feel squeamish when going to the doctor’s office?

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It doesn’t seem like a phobia of blood would be a great evolutionary adaptation, considering our ancestors certainly hunted animals and possibly had to help others in the community who could be injured and bleeding. Yet, we receive a vasovagal response at the sight of blood, which causes “sudden fright” and a deactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which gives us a “fight or flight” response (Hirai & Vernon, 2011). Clearly, the scariness of blood is what excites us in the context of Halloween, which is a delegated time of the year to expect spookiness and to brace ourselves for seeing it. Culturally, some groups of people are more prone to be disgusted by blood than others; in medieval Europe, blood sacrifices and blood-shed were often signs of heroism and power (Bildhauer, 2013). In a study between Caucasian and Asian males, the level of disgust at the sight of blood varies for multiple reasons, with one being that Asian males connect the sight of blood as a sign of contamination, which then elicits fear (Hirai & Vernon, 2011).

There are some theories that have risen to try to explain why we see blood so negatively, with one being that, evolutionarily, humans find disgust in objects that are contaminated and would prefer to avoid them. The study found it is likely that Caucasian males have less apparent fear of injections, blood or injuries because of cultural differences, considering Westernized cultures are less likely to display their “negative or unpleasant” emotions as freely (Hirai & Vernon, 2011). Another proposed proximate mechanism of our distaste for blood is that the revulsion and fear of it causes lightheadedness and even fainting. Such a response may be a form of disguise from enemies who may think that a person is dead - and who may then leave that faux-corpse alone (Jaeger, 2010).

Even with multiple cultures professing a phobia and disgust for blood and contamination, and “vasovagal syncope,” a fancy name for feeling woozy at the sight of unpleasant things, we still love blood and guts during Halloween! Vampires have clearly taken over the entertainment industry with shows like True Blood and movies like Twilight becoming cult hits. It seems as if, from an evolutionary standpoint, many people will never be adapted to the sight of blood, considering the negative physical reactions that we go through even when thinking about it. Even though we don’t typically have to worry about our enemies and “playing dead” for our enemies like our ancestors may have, it is possible that we simply get a rush of excitement because it is fake and we are removed from the event. As you see kids coming to trick-or-treat at your door with blood at the corner of their mouths, remember that when they are on the way to the doctor for a shot, they are probably trying to run in the other direction!

References

Bildhauer, B. (2013). Medieval European conceptions of blood: Truth and human integrity. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 19(S1), 57-76. Retrieved October 20, 2013.

Briggs, B. (2010, September 1). Why some people faint at the sight of blood. NBC News. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from http://www.nbcnews.com/health/why-some-people-faint-sight-blood-1C6437679

Hirai, M., & Vernon, L. (2011). The role of disgust propensity in blood-injection-injury phobia: Comparisons between Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans. Cognition and Emotion, 25(8), 1500-1509. Retrieved October 21, 2013.

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Look out! The Evolutionary Psychology of Why We are Scared of Creepy Stuff

GUEST BLOGGER: Peter Marinelli

The sun has set. An eery, unfamiliar, darkness has engulfed the sky on the night of this All Hallow’s Eve. You begin to speed up your routine walk from campus to the safety of your dormitory, because this particular walk has become anything but routine. Out of the corner of your eye you catch a glimpse of some unfamiliar entity. Almost immediately and uncontrollably your body is beginning to react. Your heart is beginning to pump quickly, your breathing has become shallow, swift, and your muscles have begun to tighten.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with these physiological symptoms, your body is reacting to the unfamiliar entity with fear. Many scholars like to group anxiety and fear together in the same definition. However, fear and anxiety are in fact two similar-yet-distinct emotions we can experience. Fear is defined as an autonomic response to the perception of a real-life threatening danger, while anxiety is the reaction to a potential danger that threatens the character of the individual (Forkman, Boissy, Salaun, Canali, & Jones, 2007) such as an upcoming exam or a public speaking event. In other words, fear is an emotional response we feel to something that can physically harm us while anxiety is an emotional response to something that can harm our personal integrity. Now that we have cleared that up, let’s get back to that unfamiliar entity looming in the shadows that has seemed to eerily begun moving closer. You didn’t forget about that right? That may be important.

Why is it that we as humans experience fear? What does whimpering, and cowering do for us as human beings? The answer may be found in our evolutionary roots. Reactions related to fear are portrayed by physiological and behavioral responses that prepare the animal or human to handle the danger that is challenging them (Forkman et al., 2007). From an evolutionary viewpoint, these defensive reactions may facilitate evolutionary fitness in human beings. A human being is much more likely to survive if it is evolutionarily shaped to avoid dangers and listen to its physiological warning signs. This may be why modern day humans experience fear. While it may seem cool to claim to not be afraid of anything. Our ancestors who did not have these physiological responses to fear would probably walk off into the wilderness and never return and therefore not be able to increase their reproductive success. Not so cool, right?

Another area related to fear is the feeling of disgust. Why is it that so many horror movies depict scenes or villains with horribly deformed body parts, lots of blood and guts, or just plain gross habitats in general? (e.g., Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and the Saw movies) just to name a few. Muris, Huijding, Mayer, and Vries (2012) have shown through their experiment involving children, that the higher the level of disgust an object or person exhibits, the higher his or her level of fear becomes toward that object. That may explain why Hollywood movies go above and beyond when it comes to making their horror movie scenes as disgusting and gut-wrenching as possible. Oh yeah I almost forgot, that unfamiliar entity that you swore you saw seems to have disappeared…...for now. Keep a look out and have a happy All Hallow’s Eve!

References

Forkman, A. Boissy; M-C Meunier-Salaün; E Canali; R B Jones (2007). A critical review of fear tests used on cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and horses. Physiology and Behavior. 92, 340-74.

Muris P, Huijding J, Mayer B, Langkamp M, Reyhan E, Olatunji B (2012). Assessment of disgust sensitivity in children with an age-downward version of the Disgust Emotion Scale.Behavioral Therapy, 43,876-86.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glenn Geher, Ph.D., is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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