Today I will be discussing six theories that attempt to explain the origins of our fears. For those interested in making this article more interactive, you can think about your own fears, and as we go along, check to see if any of these theories can explain the onset of your fears.
And for those interested in a more detailed analysis about the origins of fears (and more examples), see this recent article.¹
What do you think our primate ancestors, living millions of years ago, feared? Certainly not car accidents and nuclear weapons. They likely feared dangerous predators.
And according to the evolutionary view, those who feared dangerous animals, and as a result protected themselves against these predators, were more likely to survive and reproduce. In other words, we are the descendants of those who appropriately feared the dangers in their environment. Naturally, we inherited the same fear tendencies.²
Consider your own fears now. Could there be an evolutionary reason for their persistence?
Why do some people feel only a little anxious when they see blood, whereas others might faint?
One personality characteristic that might be relevant to our discussion is disgust proneness.³ Some people are more likely to experience disgust when they come in contact with potentially disgusting stimuli (e.g, rotting fruit, urine, blood).
Ponder your own fear again. Are you prone to feeling disgust?
To answer this question, you can think about your reactions, as compared to your friends, to coming in contact with certain animals and insects (cockroach, rat), to seeing people drooling in their sleep, to having to use a restroom at a gas station, etc.
Cognitive theories suggest that if we perceive danger or expect it in some situation, then we are more likely to experience fear. But what makes us perceive danger? Certain conspicuous aspects of a situation or object.
For instance, we might fear animals that appear strange, are fast, or move in sudden motions.4,5 Therefore, if we were to come across something completely new to us, like a robot, that happens to have a strange appearance or move in sudden jerky motions, we might experience fear.
Think of the object/situation that you fear. What, specifically, makes it frightening? Use all your senses to answer this.
Fear can be learned; for instance, when others convey fear-related messages to us, be it in the written form or orally.
You may, for example, read a warning label that says smoking kills, listen to your teacher warning you about the consequences of unsafe sexual practices, or overhear a veteran recount a harrowing tale about the horrors of war.
In each case, you might learn to fear a situation, object, action, person, etc, only based on what others have said.
Ponder your own fears now, and see if you can recall relevant warnings by others, like your parents, teachers, friends, people on TV, etc.
We acquire some fears by observing others.
For instance, imagine a friend of yours stands up to a bully, but is beaten severely. Or you watch your sibling interact with a cute dog, which unexpectedly bites your sibling’s hand and causes a serious and painful injury.
In ease case, you observe how someone acts and then the consequences of that action. Observing others can be quite powerful in teaching us what to do and what not to do.
Keeping your fears in mind, try to remember if you ever observed others in the same fear-related situation. What happened to them? Did it affect you in any way?
You may have developed your fears as a result of learning from a direct encounter with your object of fear, possibly through the process of classical conditioning.
In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus becomes associated with another stimulus and comes to elicit the same response as the other, even when the second stimulus is no longer present (see the picture here).
For instance, if last time that you used your bicycle you had a frightening fall, you might have learned to associate biking with falling and thus, with pain. That is, this direct encounter has taught you that biking equals fear and pain, and should be avoided.
One last time now, I would ask that you reflect on your own fears: Did your fears originate from direct encounters?
I hope you found today’s article useful and have some ideas now about the potential origins of your fears.
Fear can make us stop thinking. Being curious in the face of fear is one way to start thinking again.
Next week I plan to discuss social anxiety (phobia) and its treatment.
1. Emamzadeh, A. (2018). Origins of common fears: A review. The Inquisitive Mind, 5, 37.
2. Buss, D. M. (2015). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind (5th ed.). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
3. Olatunji, B. O., Armstrong, T., & Elwood, L. (2017). Is disgust proneness associated with anxiety and related disorders? A qualitative review and meta-analysis of group comparison and correlational studies. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12, 613–648.
4. Merckelbach, H., van den Hout, M. A., & van der Molen, G. M. (1987). Fear of animals: Correlations between fear ratings and perceived characteristics. Psychological Reports, 60, 1203-1209.
5. Bennett-Levy, J., & Marteau, T. (1984). Fear of animals: What is prepared? British Journal of Psychology, 75, 37-42.