Humanity’s Deepest, Darkest Fear


[♪ INTRO ] Here’s a question for you: What’s something
you’re afraid of? The first answer that comes to mind might
be your typical boggart stuff. Like, small children in horror movies, taking a test in a class that you haven’t
been to all semester, that kind of thing. But what about when you used to leap into
bed so the monsters couldn’t nip at your toes? Or that time your flight was so bumpy you
thought it was all over? Or, maybe worst of all, when you took off
your cap and gown and wondered what was next? Sorry, that just got real. Most of us experience these common fears — of
the dark, of death, or of the future — at some point in our lives. And according to psychologists, there could
be a reason for that. Some researchers have argued that there might
be one fundamental fear underlying all of these things. One you can trace all of your worries to:
the fear of the unknown. So when Albus Dumbledore said, “It is the
unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more” — he might’ve
actually been right. Jo Rowling strikes again. Psychologists — maybe unsurprisingly — have
been trying to understand fear for a long time. It was obvious early on that people have individual
differences that make them more or less likely to feel afraid and anxious. But what was less clear was why some fears
are more common than others. One idea was that certain stimuli might be
quote-unquote “biologically prepared” to provoke fear, which was basically a fancy
way of saying that being afraid of some stuff is innate because it helps keep us alive. In theory, this could explain why so many
of us are afraid of things like spiders and snakes. The problem, though, is that most spiders
aren’t really that dangerous. Generally speaking, they’re not as nearly
as dangerous as, say, mushrooms. But most of us don’t find mushrooms especially
terrifying. Another problem is that research shows that
most six-month-old infants aren’t afraid of things like snakes, which seems to suggest
that we learn to fear them later. Four-months-olds, however, do generally show
fear in response to unfamiliar stimuli. And evolutionarily speaking, the unknown makes
a lot more sense as a universal, innate thing to be afraid of. If you’ve never encountered something before,
you don’t know how to deal with it… which means a little caution might be in order. The idea of this kind of broad, fundamental
fear — rather than innate fears to specific stimuli — was proposed by a clinical psychologist
in 1991. He suggested a few criteria for this base
fear: It had to be of something inherently unpleasant, it had to be distinct from other
fundamental fears, and it had to explain other common things we’re afraid of. He believed there were three of them: the
fears of anxiety, of physical injury, and of negative evaluation. And there was some support for this idea. Like, a 1993 study that surveyed 100 subjects
found that the common fears people reported, like being terrified of heights, were well
explained by these fundamental fears. And the categories also seemed to be distinct
from each other. But more recently, psychologists have started
to argue that additional criteria are necessary to define a fundamental fear. In addition to the stuff we’ve already mentioned,
these researchers suggest that they should also be distributed evenly throughout the
population and be supported by an evolutionary explanation. It also shouldn’t be possible to reduce
them to anything more fundamental. This means that the fears of anxiety, physical
injury, and negative evaluation might not pass the test. For one, not everybody has them — like,
plenty of people, from thrill seekers to deadline junkies, actually seek out anxiety. The bigger problem, though, is that all of
these can be reduced or attributed to other fears… one of which is the fear of the unknown. And this fear does meet all the criteria. As the researchers writing about it point
out, it very well could be the one fear to rule them all. In case you were wondering: Yes. The Tolkien reference is deliberate and heavy-handed
in the paper, too. Because sometimes, scientists are a bunch
of dorks. Of course, fear of the unknown isn’t an
easy thing to validate in the lab. But there are plenty of studies to suggest
that we prefer familiarity and the sure thing, and that they can have a pretty wild effect
on our behavior. Research shows that we’re more likely to
visit a travel destination that we’ve been to before, and we’re more likely to attend
a baseball game if we feel confident that our team will win. And, although no one wants to be zapped, knowing
when electrical shocks are coming even makes the experience less stressful and anxiety-provoking
than not knowing. There’s also clinical evidence to suggest
that the fear of the unknown really gets to us. If you’re uncomfortable with uncertainty,
studies have shown, you’re likely to have more fear and anxiety. And those with certain disorders — anything
from panic and social anxiety disorders to OCD and depression — seem to be especially
affected by this fear. While it does seem like there’s something
there, it’s hard to say for sure whether fundamental fears exist, let alone whether
the fear of the unknown is the base human fear. If it is, though, it would be a pretty satisfying
answer to a lot of questions we have about ourselves, big and small. It could help explain why horror movies stop
being as scary once you’ve seen the monster, or why there’s literally nothing worse than
waiting to find out what someone thinks or whether you got that job. For now, though, we’ve just got to deal
with the fact that there’s still a lot of, well, unknowns when it comes to our fear of
the unknown. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych! If you want to learn even more about why stuff
freaks us out, you can watch our episode about why scientists think we’re specifically
afraid of the dark. [♪ OUTRO ]

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