We assume that anxiety is a handicap, some inhibiting factor of life that we have to overcome. But what if it was proven that anxiety is not just a benefit, but a personality trait necessary for survival? That is exactly what IDC’s Tsachi Ein-Dor and his colleagues have shown in a series of studies comparing anxious and non-anxious people’s behavior in dangerous situations.
In the first experiment Ein-Dor showed that having a calm personality disposition in moments of danger is actually quite dangerous. Specifically, participants with anxious personality traits were much more likely to react quickly to a fire alarm set off during the experiment than those with non-anxious personalities, who just continued with their business as the alarm blared on. Thus, having a calm disposition in moments of danger is actually quite dangerous.
In the next series of experiments Ein-Dor, along with various colleagues from the Psychology department, demonstrated the benefits to having an anxious personality in moments of threats. Those participants who qualified as anxious on personality questionnaires detected threats including depictions of infidelity and could detect lies amongst statements of truths much faster and more accurately than their non-anxious counterparts.
In the next study, the researchers found that highly anxious individuals are better detectors of real-life threats than non-anxious individuals. The researchers simulated smoke coming out of a computer while participant groups were supposed to be filling out preliminary questionnaires, creatively using a party smoke machine. The anxious participants in the groups always detected the fire faster that the secure students, with the difference in time of reaction being an average of one minute faster for the anxious group.
Further, the next study of the series proved that this ability also applies to threats that we learn are dangerous over time. In a “shoot, don’t shoot” simulation game anxious participants were much better at accurately detecting and shooting people carrying guns than non-anxious participants. This particular study has impact on soldiers in the army. A soldier who is has a calm personality in moments of stress does not have the same ability to detect the threat of a gun than a soldier with and anxious disposition.
In the most recent study, Ein-Dor and his colleagues demonstrated that not only do anxious people respond better to threat, they alert others to the situation, indirectly benefiting those around them. During the study, the researchers simulated a hack on the IDC computer while participants were filling out information, and subsequently measured if the participants alerted the research assistant of the threat and whether he or she stopped along the way to get help from various staged delays. Anxious participants were determined to get help and less likely to get distracted by other things along the way.
All of these pieces of research highlight that, unlike common assumption, it is actually quite beneficial to have an anxious personality in moments of threat. Thus, it is beneficial for others to have anxious people in their social circles, to reap the survival benefits.