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The Psychology of Fear

Posted on October 09, 2014 by Karl Young

Today we explore the psychology of fear, and delve into the human mind to understand how stimuli make us afraid, and how our body causes the fear reflex we are all so familiar with. Two questions are asked, why are you afraid and why are you afraid.

Why are YOU afraid?

 Anticipation vs stimulus

 Even the most crippling of fears can often be traced back to one event. Each subsequent time you encounter and fear the stimulus, whether it is threatening or not, you are strengthening its hold on you. Tightening the grip it has over your psyche. This is involuntary and unavoidable.

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, trained dogs to salivate upon hearing the ring of a bell if they were used to being given food after the bell sounded. After several times hearing the bell and eating food, the dogs began to salivate in anticipation when they heard the bell, regardless of whether food arrived.

This is an example of classic conditioning, where a conditioned stimulus (bell) causes and unconditioned response (salivation) – replace the bell with spiders and the salivation with fear, and you have a simplified view of one of the underpinning causes of fear.


People around you are afraid

 You may feel you have free will and full agency of your emotions, but crowd responses can have an unprecedented effect on your fear levels. Have you ever looked around to see how other passengers were reacting when a flight encountered turbulence, for example?

This natural tendency to look at others’ responses to decide whether to be afraid can be helpful if there is an authority figure to explain and waylay your fear (the pilot explaining over the plane’s Tannoy that “these are just minor turbulence, nothing to worry about”). But when there is no authority figure, it can quickly descend into panic:

 You are a slave to your amygdala

 Increasing your understanding of fear doesn’t necessarily prevent you from succumbing to it.

The amygdala will trigger your fight/flight reflexes before the more rational parts of your brain are able to fully process the stimulus. This causes the familiar physical effects that accompany fear: ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, dry mouth, sweaty palms, dizziness, shortness of breath, stammering, and inability to think clearly. Professor Wilson explained during a lecture that this response is “part of our evolutionary heritage and would have survival value if fighting or running away from an audience were appropriate”.


Why are you AFRAID?


 When fears develop in a child, are they becoming afraid anew, or is the centre that processes fear becoming more matured: enough to fully ‘fear’ innate fears?

Classical conditioning, mentioned previously, has been demonstrated numerous times in laboratories. One particularly intriguing example is an experiment carried out by Gordon R Stephenson. The popular story about this experiment involves 2 groups of monkeys, a banana, a ladder and an ice water hose. When a monkey climbed to the banana, all of the group were sprayed with the water. When one monkey was replaced with another who had never been sprayed, the new one quickly attempted to reach the banana, but was beaten by the other monkeys who knew about the water spray.

The actual version of the study is slightly less story-friendly and involves a lot of scientific jargon, but the monkeys did indeed learn to be wary of manipulating a stimulus for fear of receiving a punishment. Parallels can be drawn between this behaviour and the tendency for children to become afraid of the same things as their parents, with little understanding of the actual threat the stimuli present (if any).

Some fears are thought to be innate, however. Fear of heights has been shown in babies who have never been exposed to them previously, suggesting that they are somehow hardwired into the brain.

So are fears innate, learned, or some combination of the two? We just don’t know


The nature of fear: 5 types

A theory exists that all fears are a combination of five underlying outcomes, namely loss of autonomy, mutilation, separation, ego-death and extinction. Think of it the same way as taste, where each flavour is arises from some combination of sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami.

If it’s hard to grasp, think about how some of the 10 most common American fears factor into this theory:

Spiders are predatory and aggressive. They are capable of biting and poisoning their victims, which would trigger fear of mutilation and even extinction.



Image used under Creative Commons from dickuhne on Flickr (source)

 Being a failure, while more abstract a concept than spiders, represents a possibility of ego-death and separation. The former from feeling humiliated and ashamed of your failures, the latter from being abandoned by your friends and family as a result of your failures. The worst possible outcome is a loss of integrity of the self, the disintegration of one’s constructed sense of worthiness, and becoming a non-person – not wanted or valued by anyone else.

War and gang violence, both in the top 10 list, give rise to the possibility of mutilation and extinction and, more subtly, loss of autonomy. The changes to daily life during wartime are restrictive, and, while unlikely, there is the risk of being imprisoned for your views.


You should be grateful

An indiscriminate amygdala that cannot be negotiated with may seem like a burden in a safe and comfortable environment; being scared of snakes has very little survival value in the UK. Do not forget that you owe it a debt of gratitude for your survival so far (and that of your entire genetic line).

You should also thank the combination of common and primal fears with more esoteric and modern fears like being mugged and nuclear war. This adaptability ensures your ongoing survival; ultimately, the amygdala’s penchant for making you jittery in the presence of stimuli that aren’t necessarily threatening is an artefact of millions of years of having your back.

Consider it like a particularly grouchy granddad: old and angry, but wise and well-meaning.


Part 2 of this series, ‘how to overcome your fears‘ is coming February 29th 2015.

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