Do our friends make recreational fear more or less intense? Experimental design practice

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In a May 2023 Scientific American article, I was introduced to the concept of recreational fear (Martinez-Conde & Macknik, 2023). Of course, we’re all familiar with it. It was the term that was news to me. People who are into recreational fear do things that are scary—for fun: roller coasters, bungee jumping, haunted houses, horror movies. You get the idea. I’ve been on a bobsled (twice) and have been zip lining over some pretty impressive gorges (twice), but horror movies and haunted houses are not my bag.

Researchers wondered if being with friends would lessen the intensity of the fear in these recreational settings (Tashjian et al., 2022). Sometimes when we are with others in fear-inducing situations, social buffering occurs. The presence of others reduces our fear. But sometimes we experience social contagion. The presence of others increases our fear. In instances of recreational fear, which is it?

Here’s a little experimental design practice for the social psych chapter in Intro Psych. Ask students to work in small groups to design an exploratory study. Since we don’t know (or at least your students don’t know yet) whether the presence of others increases or decreases fear—and we can make a good case for either one, we won’t have an hypothesis. The question is “Does the presence of others in a recreational fear situation increase or decrease fear?”

Your students will have a few problems to solve in designing this study. First, the independent variable. Will they focus on the effect of the presence of friends, strangers, or both? Will they investigate the impact of group size? Does the presence of five others have more of an impact than, say, one other person?

There is also the challenge of the recreational fear situation itself. Even though your students are not actually going to conduct this study, potential IRB ethical concerns should be considered. I doubt that your IRB would approve of you scaring the bejesus out of your participants. Is there someplace in your community or nearby environs where people pay to be scared? Ask your students to design a study where they would solicit volunteers from those paying customers.

And now the dependent variable. How would your students operationally define fear?

Invite groups to share their designs with the class.

To close this activity, tell students about the Tashjian study (Tashjian et al., 2022). The researchers elicited the help of the good folks at The 17th Door, a haunted house experience now located in Buena Vista, CA. The research article includes a summary of what happens in each of the 17 scenes. I read through them. Here is the researchers’ concise summary. “Each of the 17 contiguous rooms involved distinct threats, including the inability to escape an oncoming car, mimicked suffocation, actual electric shocks, and being shot with pellets by a firing squad while blindfolded” (Tashjian et al., 2022, p. 238). In an understatement for the win, they write, “[T]his type of immersive threat manipulation is not replicable in the lab” (Tashjian et al., 2022, p. 238). The “immersive threat manipulation” lasted 30 minutes.

I’ve been on a bobsled and been ziplining over deep gorges. As far as recreational fear goes, I’m pretty sure The 17th Door is not for me.

The researchers recruited participants after they paid the admission fee and signed the waiver required by The 17th Door. Participants went through in groups of eight to ten. The researchers asked the volunteers how many friends were in their group. Everyone went through with at least one friend. Some groups were comprised entirely of friends.

As a measure of fear intensity, each volunteer wore a wrist sensor that measured skin conductance. The groups of participants are led through the experience by an employee of the The 17th Door on a precisely timed schedule. That allowed the recorded sensor activity to be aligned precisely with the events.

Now for the results. Social contagion won out over social buffering. The more friends people had with them, the greater the fear they experienced as measured by skin conductance.

The authors acknowledge that because changes in skin conductance are due to sympathetic nervous system arousal, the increase in skin conductance could be caused by factors other than fear, such as excitement or nervousness.

To close out this activity, tell students that there is a Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark run by Mathias Clasen and Marc Malmdorf Andersen. If the photo on their “people” page is accurate, their research assistants get lab coats that read on the back “Horror Research Team.” I’m a little jealous.

These are the Recreational Fear Lab’s research questions for 2020-2023:

    What is recreational fear, and what can it be used for?

    What characterizes engagement with recreational fear across the lifespan?

    What psychological and physiological characteristics are associated with recreational fear?

    When does recreational fear turn into real fear?

I’m particularly intrigued by the last question. There is a boundary, but how do we identify it—both as researchers and as a terrified person? In The 17th Door, participants can yell “Mercy” to signal that they want to opt of a scene or opt out of the entire event. What factors contribute to a person making that decision? Is that caused by crossing the line between recreational fear and real fear?

Which research question do your students find the most interesting and why?



Martinez-Conde, S., & Macknik, S. (2023, May). Friends can make things very scary. Scientific American, 328(5), 80.

Tashjian, S. M., Fedrigo, V., Molapour, T., Mobbs, D., & Camerer, C. F. (2022). Physiological responses to a haunted-house threat experience: Distinct tonic and phasic effects. Psychological Science, 33(2), 236–248.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.