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.