Friend or foe? Study finds anxious people make more accurate shooting decisions

A new study has found evidence that anxious individuals are better at making quick distinctions between friends and foes — which could have serious implications in shooting situations.

A plethora of studies have found that anxiety can harm performance in various tasks. But the new research, which was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, suggests that anxiety is linked to improved performance in some situations.

“I had indications from previous research that attachment anxiety is linked with better ability to detect various threats,” explained study author Tsachi Ein-Dor of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “People high in attachment anxiety are usually stressed and over-reacting, however. What I wanted to examine is their performance in shooting decisions – would they, and not calm and secure people, be better at making accurate shooting decisions?”

The study of 38 men and 52 women from Israel utilized an augmented reality iPad game — called Real Strike — that adds a rifle-like sight to the device’s camera and allows users to virtually “shoot” objects in the real world.

The participants, who were told the study was about spatial detection ability, shot at a group of research confederates who ran between obstacles on a basketball court. The participants were instructed to only shoot confederates who were holding a gun in their hand. Sometimes, the confederates ran between the obstacles holding other objects.

The participants also completed the Experiences in Close Relationships Questionnaire, a measure of attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. People high in attachment anxiety tend to agree with statements such as “I worry about being abandoned” while people high in avoidance tend to agree with statement such as “I prefer not to show a partner how I feel deep down.”

The researchers found that participants who were high in attachment anxiety and low in avoidance were more accurate in detecting threats. They were more likely to correctly shoot people with guns and had fewer misses when aiming at them. They also took fewer shots at people holding non-gun objects.

“The average person should take away from our study that personality should be appraised in the correct context,” Ein-Dor told PsyPost. “Being anxious is often appraised as maladaptive. We have shown that contrary to the common thought, calmness is maladaptive in the context of shooting decisions, whereas anxiety is adaptive.”

The study used a cross-sectional methodology, so the researchers cannot make any strong conclusions about cause and effect.

“This published work comprised a single study and so, replication is needed. We now have unpublished study supporting our work and so that is a first step in the right direction,” Ein-Dor explained. “In addition, because we did not manipulated people’s anxiety (we only measured it), we do not know that anxiety is the cause for making accurate shooting decisions. We only know so far that anxiety is linked with better shooting decisions.”

“People should not appraise their personality as good or bad,” Ein-Dor added. “Each personality disposition has its advantages (and disadvantages). Hence, people need to search for the context in which their personality would succeed, and this context might be elusive and counter-intuitive at times (who thought that anxious people and not secure people would be better at shooting decisions?).”

The study, “Friend or foe? Evidence that anxious people are better at distinguishing targets from non-targets“, was also co-authored by Perry-Paldi and Gilad Hirschberger.