High Place Phenomenon

Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is one of the most common fears people have. In fact, 3-5% of the population suffers from this phobia. But have you ever had a different kind of reaction while being high up? Rather than fear, have you ever though about what it would be like to leap off the edge? Or even what would happen if you pushed the person next to you. Honestly, it’s not weird if you have. As a matter of fact, it’s a lot more common than expected.


 When you’re standing on cliff and enjoying the view and you have these abnormal thoughts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re suicidal or crazy. You could be experiencing cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.” Our brain starts to think this way once we are faced with an ambiguous situation. Standing on the edge of a cliff gets you thinking about the different outcomes of a possible situation. Healthguidance.com states that “When you look over the edge of a cliff, this cognitive dissonance is caused by the fact that you tend to feel dizzy and to get a sense of vertigo. You feel slightly off balance and your body seeks to ‘right itself’ and yet your brain gets confused as there’s no immediate danger or apparent threat. You aren’t falling and in fact you’re probably not close enough to the edge in order to be likely to fall… so why is your body correcting itself and sending all those signals? Your brain makes the only possible conclusion that it can: you must want to jump. What you feel is simply the result of miscommunication in your brain and is actually, confusingly, triggered initially by the desire not to fall.”

A study conducted by Jennifer Hames, a student as Florida State University, coined this reaction as the High Place Phenomenon. According to NBC, “Hames and her colleagues surveyed 431 college students, asking them about urges to jump from high places and thoughts of suicide. They also assessed the students’ levels of depression, and their sensitivity to anxiety. About a third of the sample said they’d felt the urge to jump at least once. People who had thought of suicide were more likely to say yes, but over 50 percent of those who said they’d never considered suicide experienced the phenomenon, too.” Hames proves here that these thoughts of jumping are not necessarily correlated with depression in any way.

Because this study is observational, there is no way to prove that everyone experiences this same cognitive dissonance when approaching a ledge. This was not experiment because there were no variables manipulated. If this were to be an experiment, scientists could have had subjects stand at different heights, testing to see if the manipulated elevation has different effects on the subject’s thoughts. One of the best ways to analyze a person’s thoughts, like in Hame’s study, is through survey. Although this method is cost-effective, it could have also led to discrepancies in the data due to human error.

When approaching a ledge and a dangerous drop your survival instinct kicks in and you pull yourself away, but your balance and motor systems don’t get it, because nothing is pushing you and you don’t normally fall or leap randomly. The part of your brain that processes intention might resolve this by determining something must be pushing you or that you might actually want to jump or push your friend even if none of that is true. Our thoughts of falling off cliffs isn’t anything suicidal, it’s our brain’s mixed signals and our will to survive.


3 thoughts on “High Place Phenomenon

  1. Hyun Soo Lee

    Even with a fear of heights, I have experienced this sudden urge to jump whenever I approached a ledge or a steep decline, and I have always wondered why this was so. I know that I am not depressed or suicidal in any way, so I just shrugged it off as a result of my own morbid curiosity. At any rate, I found your post very interesting as it relates the science behind this phenomenon and explains how cognitive dissonance factors into this. As I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but think that all of this could also be attributed to intrusive thoughts, which affect pretty much everyone at one point or another. For example, many of you have probably experienced the phenomenon where you were in the back of a moving car and had the urge to chuck your cell phone out the window – something along those lines. Repeated instances of these have commonly been associated with conditions such as OCD and clinical depression, so that may tie back to the results of the study you described in your post.

  2. James Joseph Burke

    This article made complete sense to me personally. I am not the slightest bit depressed nor have I ever had a thought about actually jumping off. However when I have been hiking near a cliff or by the edge of something high up, I have for some reason, for a split second, thought what it would be like to jump off. I find that the thought is more thrill seeking than anything else. I understand the neurological lag our brain has before connecting itself. If you think about it, the brain is basically one big computer and just like computers, there are errors and lags that take a minute to get adjusted.

  3. Katie Anne Hagar

    I have developed a slight fear of heights over time and I have never felt anything resembling the urge to jump. I have wondered what it would be like to jump from high heights but not when I was near a cliff or in a high place. I simply wondered because people wonder. As I understand it, you are saying that some people get the urge to jump because our brain is trying to react to the situation but lags in arriving at the correct conclusion .In that lag time, our brain thinks it is supposed to jump rather than retreat from the “high place”. I find this very confusing. How does this confusion happen? And if a person were to be near an edge when this occurred, is this not dangerous?

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