In today’s world, indirect exposure to threatening situations is more common than ever, as illustrated by footage of terror and disaster in social media. How do such social threat learning experiences shape our decisions? We found that learning about threats from both observation and verbal information strongly influenced decision making. As with learning from our own experience, this influence could be either adaptive or maladaptive depending on whether the social information provided accurate expectations about the environment. Our findings can help explain both adaptive and pathological behaviors resulting from the indirect exposure to threatening events.Abstract
In today’s world, mass-media and online social networks present us with unprecedented exposure to second-hand, vicarious experiences and thereby the chance of forming associations between previously innocuous events (e.g., being in a subway station) and aversive outcomes (e.g., footage or verbal reports from a violent terrorist attack) without direct experience. Such social threat, or fear, learning can have dramatic consequences, as manifested in acute stress symptoms and maladaptive fears. However, most research has so far focused on socially acquired threat responses that are expressed as increased arousal rather than active behavior. In three experiments (n = 120), we examined the effect of indirect experiences on behaviors by establishing a link between social threat learning and instrumental decision making. We contrasted learning from direct experience (i.e., Pavlovian conditioning) (experiment 1) against two common forms of social threat learning—social observation (experiment 2) and verbal instruction (experiment 3)—and how this learning transferred to subsequent instrumental decision making using behavioral experiments and computational modeling. We found that both types of social threat learning transfer to decision making in a strong and surprisingly inflexible manner. Notably, computational modeling indicated that the transfer of observational and instructed threat learning involved different computational mechanisms. Our results demonstrate the strong influence of others’ expressions of fear on one’s own decisions and have important implications for understanding both healthy and pathological human behaviors resulting from the indirect exposure to threatening events.