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Anxiety: Catch It

​RESEARCHERS from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Zoology have found that anxiety is contagious in groups of animals. The work may hold useful lessons for dealing with anxiety in humans, which also exhibit herd-like traits.

In Threat Detection: Behavioral Practices in Animals and Humans, the researchers studied anxiety by placing voles, which are small, mouse-like rodents, into situations that elicited varying amounts of anxiety. In one scenario, the voles were exposed to their number one predator—the barn owl.

When the voles faced the predator alone, their stress levels increased but were varied amongst the voles, explains Associate Professor David Eilam, one of the study’s researchers. When the voles spent the night together, however, their anxiety levels were the same as that of the other voles. The anxiety also led to more vigilance among the voles; vigilance is a reaction to anxiety, and it turned out to be contagious as well.

Eilam stresses that it’s very difficult to study humans in the same types of controlled experiments that can be run with voles and other animals. However, he says this work can serve as a model of comparison to human behavior. Indeed, the paper states that the animals’ group reactions to the predator situation are reminiscent of post-9-11 behavior in which people across social and economic spectra expressed higher levels of patriotism and volunteerism, which served as anxiety-coping mechanisms.

It should be noted that anxiety is different than fear in that fear is tied to a specific, palpable threat, and when the threat goes, the fear goes. But left in its wake is anxiety, the worry that while the immediate threat has been countered, it could return in some way at some unknown time.

The researchers write that one reaction to anxiety is to operate by the “better safe than sorry” principle, often referred to in other areas as the precautionary principle. According to the report, “Precautionary systems tend to evaluate ambiguous situations as being dangerous rather than being safe. After all, being careful is on the whole less likely to lead to a bad outcome.”

The “better safe than sorry” creed is related not only to the internal workings of animals and humans but to the way governments and other officials approach ill-defined threats. The precautionary principle has been invoked in everything from public health to environmental legislation.

However, the use of the precautionary principle can be controversial when applied to international and security relations, says John C. Williams, coauthor of Risk Assessment, Policy-Making and the Limits of Knowledge: The Precautionary Principle and International Relations, which was published in the European Journal of International Relations.

The Bush Doctrine of preventive war following 9-11 is often cited as an example of the precautionary principle used in an international security setting. Williams says the international community has long been skeptical of the preemptive war use of the precautionary principle. “In the eyes of the weaker states in particular, this is sort of an enormous loophole through which the powerful can drive a coach and horses and dress up any kind of military aggrandizement as some sort of precautionary action.”

However, use of the precautionary principle can be traced back to the problem of anxiety; not only is it contagious, but it has no logical endpoint. So individuals, nations, and even voles must scramble to find ways to coexist with their fears of the unknown.