A Stranger Can Reduce Your Anxiety and Fear in Certain Situations

A new study finds that we find comfort in those who are unknown to us.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
February 25, 2020

From an early age we’re taught about “stranger danger” and told not to talk to people we don’t know. While this is an important lesson — especially when children are involved — new research out of the University of Würzburg has discovered that in certain situations, being around strangers can reduce our anxiety and fear.

This may seem counterintuitive: Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to be surrounded by people we know when we’re stressed? Not necessarily. “Our results show that fear and the resulting physiological tension can be reduced by the mere presence of another person, even if this person is unknown and does not provide active support,” Grit Hein, a professor of translational social neuroscience at the University of Würzburg, said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, found that the anxiety-reducing presence of a stranger did not depend on the person’s race or ethnic background. In fact, people experienced even more comfort in situations when they were anxious when the stranger looked like they were part of a different culture. “Interestingly, the anxiety-reducing effect was stronger when the subjects perceived the other person as less similar — probably because they then assumed that the other person, unlike themselves, was not afraid,” Hein said.

At this point, the research only tested the stranger theory on women in the presence of other women, and follow-up studies are required to understand more about how (or whether) the gender of strangers impacts a person’s anxiety levels. “There are hints from stress research that the gender of the present person could play a role,” Hein said. Ultimately, Hein and her colleagues hope that the findings from this project could be used to help treat anxiety disorders.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

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This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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