The science of fear: what are we really afraid of?

Posted by Andy Myers on the 1st November, 2018
Fear is supposed to be something that we avoid, yet people can’t get enough of the scares that Halloween provides.

Hallowe’en Special: what are we really afraid of?

Fear is supposed to be something that we resolutely avoid, yet people can’t get enough of the scares that Halloween provides. How do we explain this apparent paradox, and what can the science of fear tell us about conventional frights relating to spooky ghosts and witches, for example, compared to broader societal and personal anxieties?

To support this, we conducted new research amongst 2,000 UK adults that explored what people fear, from ‘losing freedom’, through to ‘loneliness’, ‘Donald Trump’, ‘Ghosts’, and ‘Witches’.

What makes you afraid?

Lots of things make us feel afraid. Being afraid of some things – like fires – can keep you safe. Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you doing well

The word ‘anxiety’ tends to be used to describe worry, or when fear is nagging and persists over time. It is used when the fear is about something in the future rather than what is happening right now. That fits with the results of our research, which shows that the longer-term concerns, those that blend fear and anticipation, impact people most strongly when asked explicitly.

For instance, ‘losing freedom’ is the number one fear among people (67%), followed by ‘Future of the NHS’ (60%), ‘Pain’ (59%), ‘Loneliness’ (52%), and ‘Failure’ (52%). Broader societal fears also rate relatively highly – 42% fear ‘Donald Trump’ and 41% ‘Brexit’ – while people are less fearful of the more conventional and specific scares related to Halloween such as ‘Ghosts’ (22%), ‘Witches’ (15%), and Skeletons (14%).

But how do we really feel – reaction time testing

Looking at only what people say gives us only part of the story. To get to the heart of what we really feel we used Reaction Time Testing (RT). By measuring speed of response, we can understand, when someone thinks ‘fear’, what the most intuitive associations are; what are the memories that fear truly evokes? Such associations are built up based on individual experiences throughout our life and RT allows us to measure these.

Reaction Time Testing gives us a layer of insight that would have otherwise have remained hidden.

Using RT, we found that while broader fears such as ‘The Future of the NHS’ were high at the explicit level (what people say), these responses were slow, a hesitation that maybe they aren’t as important as stated. However, looking deeper the fastest reactions came from those most likely to have immediate impact on us and within our most immediate experience; for example pain, loneliness, failure…oh and spiders!

Does this mean that people don’t really fear such things as ‘The future of the NHS’? No, while these concerns are still very real, our primary intuitive link to fear is that which taps into those things closest to our ‘self’ and our centre of control. So fear isn’t just the things that we hear most about, but those around us all the time and RT gives us a layer of insight that would have otherwise have remained hidden.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow articulated this notion of self in his five-level ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. At number one is physiological need – the requirement for air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc. Second is to be safe and secure – protected from the elements, surrounded by security, order, law, limits, and stability. This explains, perhaps, why our research shows that phobias such as ‘Heights’ (43%) remain so prominent.

Third in the Maslow hierarchy is the need for love and belonging, which includes work group, family, affection, and relationships. It makes sense, then, that ‘Loneliness’ ranked so highly in our research on fear. Fourth is esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, and managerial responsibility. Followed by self-actualization, which requires realizing personal potential, self-fulfilment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

Our Understanding the Nation research has also shown that factors around the outlook for security of self, concerning mental health, property and financial situation are all significantly lower amongst our younger generation.

It follows, therefore, that humans’ fears are directly related to their needs. Threaten people’s physiological wellbeing, then their safety, and then take away any element of choice. That’s far more frightening than a Halloween witch on a moonless byway.

Meet the Author: Andy Myers
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