Where do our fears come from?

Everybody has something that keeps them up when things go bump in the night. The National Comorbidity Survey, a study of more than eight thousand respondents in the United States, ranked the popularity of several phobias:

1. Bugs, mice, snakes, and bats 2. Heights 3. Water 4. Public transportation 5. Storms 6. Closed spaces 7. Tunnels and bridges 8. Crowds 9. Speaking in public

Our fears tend to change as we grow older: for example, WebMD says that common fears of preschoolers include masks, the dark, monsters and ghosts, while children in school panic due to snakes and spiders, being home alone, angry teachers, doctors, and natural disasters. But how do we develop these fears?

The most obvious answer is that a fear can be formed by a traumatic experience in the past involving the source of terror. For example, if I was stung by a bee as a child, I would naturally be afraid of bees in the present due to anxiety that I might be stung again. However, this isn’t always the case- I’m somewhat afraid of bees even though I’ve never been stung or even seen it happen to someone else.

Another possible explanation is that fear arises from witnessing another person’s anxiety or phobia. Michael Cook at the University of Wisconsin discovered that “monkeys born in the wild are afraid of snakes — a useful asset for their survival. But monkeys raised in a laboratory don’t react when they see a snake, whether it’s poisonous or not. This shows that our fears can’t be genetic.” However, “monkeys who have never been afraid of snakes quickly learn to be frightened of them: they only have to see that another monkey is scared. And it only has to happen once.”

This would certainly explain many phobias, but I’m still left wondering why seeing a horror movie in a theater with other scared people has less of an effect on many of us than seeing a horror movie at night in the dark while at home alone. This probably stems from being afraid of the dark and sudden noises as a preschooler, but why do some people carry this fear throughout adulthood?

Maybe a fear of darkness is so common because most humans fear the unknown or what they cannot see with the naked eye. “This fear, and the grinding anxiety that it generates, acts as a check and limiting mechanism against reckless behavior like, say, running around in the dead of the African night with a continent’s-worth of big cats out on the prowl. In other words, it’s an evolutionary advantage.” Anxiety increases awareness and at a time when humans were far from the top of the food chain, being afraid of the dark made all the difference in the survival of the species.


(source: https://www.scienceworld.ca/ads)


5 thoughts on “Where do our fears come from?

  1. Diego

    Your blog about fear in general is compelling. Personally I find this an interesting topic to ponder about because our fears are in our thoughts, not in the actual situation itself. It was also interesting to see the 8 big fears humans have, and by citing this claim from the National Comorbidity Survey which asked the same question to more than eight thousand participants. I don’t necessarily agree that anxiety increases your awareness. Maybe because I feel awareness is a concept whose definition might be somewhat subjective. For example I feel anxiety clouds your vision and doesn’t let you think clearly. Awareness might be having a clear view of all your option and behave in a logical manner. However I believe it is also true that anxiety does increase awareness if you use the concept in a different way. Say awareness is a state were a person only fixates on whats severely important at the moment, which absolutely helped humans survive many threats when they were far from the top of the food chain, like you said. In this link: http://www.fastcompany.com/3041218/6-ways-emotions-can-cloud-your-judgement, you can see how anxiety overwhelms people with emotions which in turn affect the use of logic in their decision making process under those circumstances.

  2. Celine Elizabeth Gosselin Post author

    What I want to know is why little kids play with dolls all the time but suddenly when you hit the teenage years, a lot of the dolls from your childhood now seem creepy as all get out. I get that a lot of the fear probably comes from movies like “Annabelle”, but I know quite a few people who were terrified of dolls before even seeing their first horror movie. It’s such an irrational fear (it’s a toy! It’s smaller than you are! It’s an inanimate object!) but it’s such a paralyzing one for people like my sister. I wonder why sometimes it’s impossible to convince yourself that you have nothing to be afraid of, and why there are occasions when logic fails.

  3. Siyuan Yang

    I was told by my grandma that fear comes from human heart. Your post analyzes the psychological aspects of fear. And for the question, I think when people watch horror movies together, they rely on each other and expect protection from others. More importantly, they prove that all of them are in a real world, in an environment that they are familiar with, not, like many horror movies set, in a supernatural and weird environment. So people feel less fear because there is less unknown. But some kinds of fear are truly genetic, such as acrophobia. My grandpa, my father and I have acrophobia in common. You may look upThis Study, which tracks the genetic reason of olfactory fear and the other and show how fear DNA passes down to the next generation.

  4. sjb5895

    I was actually told that the only two initial fears that everyone is born with is the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling or being dropped. So it is interesting to read in your blog that the number one thing people are scared of is bugs and snakes. To me, this could mean that people are fearful of things because of their past. Or maybe its there imagination, because people who are afraid of snakes probably imagine the snakes to jolt and bite at their face, even if the snake is harmless. I do agree with your possible theory that fears come from other people. We as humans can be influenced by other humans, so I think that is the main reason why we are scared or things other than the initial fears of loud noises and falling.

  5. mcm5844

    Your article about the origins of fear is very interesting. All of your example relate to my belief in the psychological aspect of fear, and how it is all in the mind. Traumatizing experiences and picking up common fears from others are all part of us tricking ourselves into something. The article shared below explains the complexities of fear and what is going on psychologically. It’s a good read and may broaden your understanding of fear!


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