BOO! Did that scare you? Probably not. There’s nothing scary about reading the word “boo.” Under certain circumstances, however, the word “boo” could be quite frightening. What makes things scary? Why are we afraid? Evolutionary psychologists think they might have the answer.
Fear is a reaction to a perceived danger or threat. Often called a “fight-or-flight” response, fear causes a person to confront the danger or flee to safety. Scientists consider the emotion a result of natural selection—individuals averse to threats survive at a higher rate than their fearless counterparts, allowing them to reproduce and pass their genes to future generations. Basic examples of fear include the urge to hide from monsters or run away from hungry lions.
But what about fears that seem more irrational, such as the fear of heights or spiders? These phobias might have served an evolutionary purpose as well. In fact, evolutionary psychologists believe the fear of mice and insects dates back to the neolithic or paleolithic eras (2.6 million B.C.E to 8,000 B.C.E), when they became significant carriers of disease and substantial threats to crops. People who maintained a distance from them gradually outlasted everyone else, resulting in a more fear-prone gene pool.
We can also develop fears through experience. For example, a child who has a traumatic run-in with a dog can come to perceive all dogs as threats. We can become afraid without personally experiencing a danger as well. Studies show that witnessing someone else at risk activates the same areas of the brain as our personal encounters, allowing us to learn from other people’s exploits. These fears can spread across entire cultures: many Americans in the 1930s shared a fear of polio, while people around the globe today are scared of terrorist attacks.
It is interesting to note that while some people live in the absence of certain emotions, there are no recorded cases of individuals who do not experience fear. For some reason fear seems to be inseparable from the human experience.
So how important is fear? It is a key element to our species’ survival. Next time you evade a threat out of fright, be sure to thank your ancestors for being so afraid.
So what do you think of these theories? Do they shine a new light on fear? Let me know in the comments section below! As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday, and have a happy (and scary!) Halloween!
Comment question of the week
What are you scared of?