Born to be Scared?
I was once asked by a student why psychologists never seem to give a straight answer. “Depends what you mean by a straight answer”, I replied. “That’s what I mean”, she announced in triumph, “everything has a twist to it.” To an extent she was correct. There are few absolutes in psychology which is why we spend so much time referring to probabilities and likelihoods. For every theory, there’s at least one other variation or possibly contradiction, and so it goes.
Within the world of psychological debate there are certain hotspots and the nature v nurture debate can be considered one of these. Distilled to its essence, the debate revolves around the extent to which we are born to be the way we are (nature), how much is learned (nurture) and how the two could possibly interact. From here we can select any number of examples to illustrate certain points. In this posting I thought I’d look at fear and phobias as just one example of the nature v nurture debate.
Fear is different to a phobia but fear is also the central component of a phobia. A phobia is regarded as an irrational fear, so being threatened with a knife is likely to evoke fear in most people whereas having to cross the street to avoid a feather would strike most people as irrational.
One of the interesting things about fears is how they develop as we develop. An infant tends to fear loud noises, being separated from their mother, and sometimes water and heights – in other words things in their immediate surroundings. As children get older, fears change and start to include, for example, animals, blood and ghosts. Once children mature to pre-adolescence and then adolescence fear of injury, social situations, criticism and evaluation, become features. These are quite normal and in no way represent a phobia.
There is plenty of evidence to point to fear as something we learn. Fear can easily be acquired as a result of some trauma, for example being bitten by a dog. The dog bite is painful and unpleasant and so the person learns to avoid dogs. An intense fear of dogs can therefore easily result from just one very unpleasant experience.
If only life were so simple as being able to source the basis of our fears from a single traumatic event. The problem is that many phobics have no recollection of a related traumatic event. Also, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event goes on to develop a phobia. Then we only have to look at the kinds of things people fear. Spiders, snakes, heights and thunder are much more common than say knives and guns, yet logic dictates which we should really be more scared of.
It is quite common to find families all of whom share the same phobias. In my own family we have a ‘thing’ about spiders. I can’t say I’m terribly keen on the beasties, but they don’t send me into a state of paralysis, make me scream, or require me to run from the room. However, as the person least concerned about spiders, I’m despatched to clear the room of any spidery incursions, a role I know reinforces the phobia - but I still do it. My daughter fears spiders too, yet you have to look long and hard to find a spider that will actually cause people harm. The logic makes no difference of course and I’m convinced that the fear my daughter has was acquired by observing the reactions of her mother, who unfortunately does appears to be something of a spider magnet!
I said earlier that there is always another theory. In the case of fear, there is more than one, but I’ll just mention one. The very fact that there are common themes with fear has encouraged some theorists to speculate that fear might be hardwired from birth. One such approach suggests we are born with a predisposition to learn to fear some things quickly as a product of our ancestory. This preparedness theory, as it is known, was put forward by Martin Seligman (1971). The strength of the theory is that it doesn’t exclude learning as a possibility for acquiring fears, but it helps to explain why certain phobias are more common than others. As to whether our ancestors were really threatened by spiders, thunder, open spaces, etc, is purely speculative and if this is the case why aren’t we more scared of lions, tigers and things can really harm us?
Whenever I teach phobias I like to ask my class what their fears are. It usually starts with the more common fears like snakes, spiders, the dark, injections, and gradually moves into the rare but interesting variety. To spare blushes I won’t mention them here but if you’d care to share your phobias in the comments below I’m sure you’ll have a receptive and sympathetic audience.