Programmed to Avoid – How Nonverbals of Out-groups Inspire Thoughts of Danger
Christopher Philip

So you’re walking down the street without much thought. You pass a few people whom you barely notice. Then, you come across a guy with tattoos, a bandana, with loose fitting jeans and a thug-like gait. What do you do?

Chances are great that you’ll passively seek escape routes or even cross the street – you’d do anything to avoid a member of this “outgroup.”

Research has shown that people react without conscious consideration to threat in what has been dubbed “prime-to-behavior.” This explains that how one behaves in the face of perceived danger is more do to with how one feels about a specific danger than exactly what one thinks about it. This goes for people we see as part of a negatively stereotyped group and habitually on the basis of membership which we often judge by nonverbal appearance alone.

To study this effect, researchers Natalie Wyer and Guglielmo Calvini, University of Plymouth designed a study. As part of the procedure the participants were exposed to a special perceptions task which involved a set of asterisks and hash marks covering the same areas as the prime. The participants were asked to judge whether the dots were odd or even. This was in effort to mask the prime. Next, half of the participants were exposed to a hoodie prime consisting and an image of a young man in a hooded shirt. In the other condition, the young man was in neutral, casual attire. Next, half of the subjects were exposed to threat-related words such as agony, coffin, disease and so forth. The subjects were asked to judge whether the words and a set of numbers corresponding to the words matched. This effect was used to expose the subjects to the hoodie and therefore pair the hoodie image with threat related words.

Now that the subjects were primed (or not primed for the hoodie condition), they were asked to move to an adjacent room to complete the trail. Here, they were confronted with an open room with a table in the corner opposite the door. One chair was at the far end of the table upon which a nonhooded jacket and neutral backpack was placed. The experiment informed the subject that another member of the research study had to leave to make a phone call but would return momentarily.

After selecting a seat, the experiment re-entered the room and made a mark on the floor to record the distance from the seat that the subject set.

The results found that seating distance, as predicted, was affected by the hoodie prime. To be specific, when the subjects returned to the room, they moved further away from the hooded individual. Importantly, the effect was not conscious and produced real world avoidance behaviours. Where other research has focus on perception with respect to out-groups, this study has demonstrated something more important, a real world consequence. When hoodies are linked to threat, and other negative words, people will use that information to avoid hoodies and the people whom wear them. Other studies have also found that when people are not able to avoid an out-group, they often resort to aggression.

Regardless, the study is important in demonstrating how simple nonverbals such as attire can produce repulsion and drive a wedge between you and those around you. Being part of an out-group can range from many factors including not just attire, such as race, religion and even gender. While not much can be done as far as physical appearances, people can certainly produce more in-group identities with nonverbals including clothing and fashion.


Natalie A. Wyer and Guglielmo Calvini. Don’t Sit So Close to Me: Unconsciously Elicited Affect Automatically Provokes Social Avoidance. Emotion. 2011. 11(5): 1230-1234.