A multi-method approach to measuring mental representations of threatening others


How do people mentally represent distinct interpersonal threats? Across human history, interpersonal threats such as infectious disease and violence have posed powerful selection pressures. Such pressures selected for psychological systems that help identify and reduce threats posed by other people. In the case of infectious disease, psychology researchers have found that such systems respond to a variety of infection cues (e.g., rashes, swelling) as well as cues that merely resemble infection cues (e.g., birthmarks, obesity). Are such cues part of people’s mental representations, and if so, are those cues unique to infection representations or are they included in representations of other threats? Using a multi-method approach, we find that when participants listed traits or drew mental representations of threat, they perceived infected and violent others to differ along threat-specific features. However, when using a data-driven, reverse correlation method that restricted participants from deliberating on and editing their representations, participants generated mental images that were similar on many of the features that both researchers and laypeople expect to distinguish infection and violence threats. These findings suggest our understanding of threat processing may suffer from a disconnect between the threat cues derived from the expectations of researchers and those revealed when expectations are constrained.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
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