What is fear? Psychology professor talks phobias and the brain


Tucker Legerski | @TuckerLegerski, Contributing Writer

Fear haunts all of us. We can fear needles, what lurks in dark forests, fire, looking at our bank accounts, our neighbors, wondering about our unknown futures. But what exactly is fear? How does it influence our decisions, and how can it be overcome? Jennifer Cox, associate professor of psychology at The University of Alabama, has some answers.

Q:  On a psychological level, how would you describe fear?

A: We talk a lot about fear in context of evolutionary psychology, so using psychological principles from an evolutionary perspective to understand psychological phenomenon in human behavior. So in that context, fear is generally conceptualized as a physiological response to a perceived threat. It’s also emotional and cognitive. It’s a response to a perceived threat.

Q: How does that perceived threat influence people’s decisions? 

A: We are evolutionarily wired to protect ourselves and protect our offspring. If someone perceives fear or experiences fear because of a threat, it is likely they’ll engage in a behavior for safety. So if this means somebody walking down the street overnight, and there’s a shady character walking towards them, then that signals someone to cross the street. Or it can be a much more sophisticated judicial response. We have someone who engages in violent behavior and uses violence against other people, so we remove them from society to protect people in society. 

Q: Is there a way that fear misconstructs an honest reality of someone because of our fears?

A: We are more likely to survive in groups, but evolutionarily, we are more likely to survive in groups of people that are like us. We are naturally wired to distrust people who aren’t like us and to distrust the other. We have to go through cognitive effort to question that and get over that distrust or fear of someone who is different. When we aren’t able or not willing to do that cognitive work, we are most likely to perceive fear in somebody just because they don’t act like, use the same culture as us, look like us, use the same language, etc. The unknown is a really fearful thing for us.

Fear of the unknown gets everyone. Rebecca Solnit has written many books about this, about engaging with that unknown. Solnit quotes Virgina Woolf’s thoughts on the future: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit expands this thinking around the future. If we have full optimism or full despair around the future – around the unknown – then it’s like having a memory of the future. It stops us from agency. To not know about the future is to use our creativity and gain hope at the future’s unpredictability. 

Q: Does that unknown manifest around a certain object, animal or specific person? 

A: I think this gets at that question if fear is taught or if it’s inherent. It’s both. There’s a reason phobias like spiders and snakes are more common than phobias like white fluffy bunnies. Heights, snakes, spiders could all potentially kill us, right? It’s easier for us to develop phobias of those things compared to things that already hurt us or put us in danger. That being said, there’s a really famous psychological study done by behaviorist John Watson, and the study, it was terrible actually, with a toddler named Little Albert, where they conditioned him to be afraid of a white rabbit. They put in the white rabbit and then played a loud noise that he didn’t like. So every time they presented the rabbit, he started associating the rabbit with this terrible sound that he hated. It made him cry. He made that association, and he was afraid of white rabbits. It’s a pretty terrible thing. He was able to develop this fear over this object that wouldn’t be anxiety-provoking. We can change people to be afraid of things even though they might not be wired to be afraid of things.

Famous across Psy 101 classes, the study was originally to make Little Albert scared of white rats and later brought in similar “stimuli” to see if Albert would have the same response. The video shows these rabbits being placed next to Albert and him screaming in fear. Before the loud noises – which Albert associated with fluffy animals – he had no fear of different animals he encountered. 

Q: How much is fear needed?

A: It’s good to be afraid of heights, right, because being on top of a building could cause you to fall and get hurt or die. We do need fear. It’s an important part of keeping us alive. The problem arises when we fear things to the extent that it inhibits our everyday lives. Let’s take spiders. Being afraid of spiders is neither here nor there unless their fear of spiders prohibits them from engaging in their everyday tasks – in which case, it arises to the psychological. In psychology, we aren’t good at curing a lot of things. However, we do have some well-established techniques to cure phobias. It’s when phobias are basic, like heights or germs, that sort of thing. We are not as good when we are talking about more complex things like other cultures, or the unknown, the future. We are not as good at that.

In his book on earth’s largest predators, “Monster of Gods,” David Quammen writes eloquently on the importance of that fear beyond just safety and what our world would be like without it. He writes more about the importance of giant beasts, human-eating monsters, but he also writes on the importance of fear: “Such creatures enliven our fondest nightmares. They thrill us horribly. They challenge us to transcendent courage…They allow us to recollect our limitations. They keep us company. The universe is a very big place, but as far as we know it’s mainly empty, boring, and cold. If we exterminate the last magnificently scary beasts on planet Earth, as we seem bent upon doing, then no matter where we go for the rest of our history as a species – for the rest of time – we may never encounter any others.” 

Q: What are the best strategies to overcome fear? 

A: The best thing is education, is understanding. For example, it won’t cure fear, but having a knowledge of very few shark attacks that actually occur. Understanding the lack of threat. It gets more difficult when understanding fear of other cultures or fearing traditions outside of our own culture. Increasing understanding and awareness is going to be the first step. The more familiar you are, the less likely something is going to be anxiety-provoking for you. So that includes engaging with individuals in other cultures or engaging with people who don’t act or think like you. The more they are in your world, more in your sphere, the less scary they are. It’s all about knowledge and engaging with others. 

Cartoonist, writer, teacher and recent Macarthur Genius Grant winner Lynda Barry promotes the idea of images as something that saves us. In a recent lecture at The University of Alabama, she talked about how we rely on attachment from a young age. We attach to a blanket, a set of keys, a superhero mask, and that holds us, keeps us grounded. Her philosophy extends to the idea that we need images throughout our lives to help us in life. Images can haunt us, but they can also save us, Barry would argue. She recounted one anecdote when she was in the airport and saw a little boy carrying just the leg of an The Incredible Hulk. “That’s all he needed, man, just the leg.” 

Reading list:

“Hope in the Dark” by Rebecca Solnit 

“Monsters of God” by David Quammen 

“What is an Image” & “Making Comics” Lynda Barry

“The Gift of Fear: and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin De Becker

“Fear Icons” by Kisha Lewellyn