Thesis defense

Social Cognition Under Threat Anxiety-Inducing Contexts

Practical information
28 January 2021




Individual reactions to threat are very often thought as individualistic and antisocial. However, more than fifty years of work in sociology and social psychology indicate that humans favor social strategies when confronted with threat. Indeed, cases of cooperation and mutual aid are often reported in the literature on disasters. To implement such strategies, psychological mechanisms that allow us to process social signals conveyed by others in order to act with them must be in place and these mechanisms must be maintained and even optimized in situations of intense anxiety. Understanding how danger reconfigures how we perceive our social environment and how we represent others and their actions, as well as the incentives of such strategies, is an important theoretical challenge. To tackle this issue, we led 3 studies. In the first one, we validated a within-subject method to induce anxiety in a sustained manner: the threat-of-scream paradigm which consists in alternating blocks in which participants are at risk of hearing aversive distress screams at any time (threat blocks) with blocks in which they are not exposed to aversive stimuli at all (safe blocks). In a second study, we used this procedure to investigate how co-representation of action (i.e. the ability to automatically integrate the actions of other individuals into our own action plans to facilitate action coordination) is impacted under threat. Results showed that co-representation (assessed by measuring the magnitude of the classical Social Simon Effect) is maintained under threat contexts and seems to be particularly boosted when participants are exposed to danger near safe partners. Our results suggest that the potential function of co-representing others’ actions could be to promote social strategies essential for one’s own survival. Finally, the third study addressed how facial displays of fear are perceived under threat. Indeed, depending on their associated gaze direction, they can either be appraised as signaling the presence of a potential threat in the surrounding environment (averted gaze), or as a signal of distress and potential need of help (direct gaze). Using a categorization task, we investigated if danger-related or distress-related signals were prioritized under the threat-of-scream procedure. We observed that the appraisal of danger-related signals transmitted by facial displays of fear is increased under threat contexts, with no impact on the appraisal of distress signals. Altogether, our results suggest that while social strategies are maintained under threat, they might be sustained by self-preservatives motives.


Pascal, HUGUET- Université Clermont Auvergne, Rapporteur
Florian, BUBLATZKY - Central Institute of Mental Health, Rapporteur
Rachael, JACK - University of Glasgow, Examinatrice
Elisabeth, PACHERIE - Institut Jean Nicod, Examinatrice
Julie, GREZES - PSL Research University, Directrice de thèse
Guillaume, DEZECACHE - Université Clermont Auvergne, Directeur de thèse

Gotomeeting link:èseMorganBEAURENAUT/thèse-morgan-beaurenaut 
password: 759-525-933