The Psychology Behind Fear

The science behind fear

In the previous article we saw the what and the how of fear (namely what is fear and how is fear created), in this article we’ll look into the why. Why is fear created?

The instinct of fear is required for the very survival of human beings as with any other species. If we did not possess fear, we would be routinely getting hit by trucks, slicing our hands while cutting vegetables, falling off cliffs and dying instead of admiring the scenic beauty or getting bitten by poisonous snakes and rabid dogs.

Fear is also linked to evolution-people who feared the right things survived and passed on this information through their genes. Even a person who hasn’t seen a snake once in their lifetime would still grimace and move back at the sight of one. Our ancestors living in the wild wouldn’t want to trample a snake, getting bitten in return. The instinct to avoid them still remains. The nuances of modern civilization haven’t altered our primitive reflexes much. Though the stimuli might have changed-our response to them hasn’t changed. The instinct that would push us to run away at the sight of a lion is the same that prods us to walk faster when confronted with shady looking people in a dark alleyway.

However, not everybody fears the same thing, or not even the same thing in the same amount. Children are born with only two innate fears-that of heights and of loud noises. It seems every other fear is acquired. The earliest example of this can be seen in humans who would hide in caves in the event of a storm and stay there till it subsided because of  their fear of lightning. They anticipated lightning. The did not have to witness lightning to run away-in which the time to escape would have been too little anyway. The anticipation was enough.

The ability of humans to be conditioned to fear certain things is called fear conditioning. In an experiment in psychology, John Watson proved this conclusively in the 1920s. The subject was an 11 month old  toddler who previously had no fear of white mice. Indeed, it would often reach out to these laboratory test animals and show joy at their sight. Watson and his assistant conditioned “Little Albert” to fear white mice by making a terrifyingly loud noise every time he reached out for those rodents. Over time the child not only developed the fear of white mice but also of other furry white creatures including Santa Claus mask with a white beard! He would cry and move away at the sight of any of those things. This was a case of Pavlovian (classical) conditioning, where a neutral stimuli (the rat) had been paired with a negative effect. Though not one of psychology’s gentlest or most ethical experiments, the test did confirm the concept of fear conditioning.

Similarly, people with irrational fear of certain objects or situations-such as the fear of enclosed places-might have had bad experience in the past relating to closed places resulting in their being conditioned, though not consciously, to claustrophobia. By this rationale, these irrational fears can often be treated by exposing the subject to the perceived negative stimulus repeatedly and obtaining neutral effect. Eventually, these people come to see the stimulus as neutral as well.

Thus, by understanding the psychology behind fear, several people have been cured of numerous phobia over time.

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