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Universal Human Fears

Universal Human Fears
Pavol Prokop
University of Trnava, Trnava, Slovakia
A distressing emotion caused by anticipation or
awareness of danger.
Darwin states, in his book The Expression of the
Emotions in Man and Animals which supported
the theory of natural selection, that fear is the
most depressing of all the emotions(Darwin
1872, p. 36). A century later, basic emotion theo-
rists have proposed that certain emotions are
innate, in part because they are expressed the
same in people around the world (e.g., Ekman
1977). There is growing agreement among
researchers that fear is an adaptive emotion that
motivates ght or ybehavior, ultimately pro-
moting self-protection. This entry is focused on
(1) domains of human fear and (2) preparedness
learning, (3) perceptual biases, and (4) gender
differences to support its evolutionary origin.
Fear is associated with ancient parts of the
brain; the amygdala areas, which are located
deep and medially within the temporal lobes of
the brain, have been involved in fear conditioning
in a variety of mammals, including rats, mice,
rabbits, and monkeys (for a review, see LeDoux
2012). Almost universal physiological and behav-
ioral responses to fear-related stimuli are escape,
avoidance behavior, a stronger heart rate, blood
pressure, respiration, and adrenaline and gluco-
corticoid release. It is suggested that fear-related
responses are adaptive, because they prepare our
bodies for a ght or escape from a potential dan-
ger. Both types of responses require accelerated
metabolism via glucose release by adrenaline and
oxygen supply to the muscles by rapid breathing
in order to make energy available to the muscles
for ght or ight (Marks and Nesse 1994).
Evolutionary psychologists have suggested
that fear has developed for mostly ancient threats
(e.g., certain animals such as snakes, spiders and
rats, heights, storms, darkness, blood, strangers,
and separation or leaving the safety of home), but
not to current threats (e.g., cigarettes, cars, elec-
trical equipment, or handguns). Three lines of
evidence support this idea. First, fear stimuli are
nonrandomly distributed and are related to real
(albeit ancient) threats (Marks and Nesse 1994).
People rarely display, for example, a fear of trees,
stones, or the sky which were not harmful to our
ancestors, but fears of harmful objects or events
#Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
T.K. Shackelford, V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2996-1
are relatively common. Second, Martin Seligman
(1971) has proposed that fears reect evolution-
arily prepared learning to fear events and situa-
tions that have provided survival threats in our
evolutionary past. This can be documented with
classic experiments carried out by Cook and
Mineka (1990,1991). Laboratory-reared, but not
wild, monkeys do not manifest strong fearful
responses to snakes suggesting that their reactions
are learned, rather than innate. Monkeys are, how-
ever, able to quickly acquire a fear of a predator by
observing other monkeys expressing fear in inter-
action with the predator. When laboratory-reared
monkeys observed a wild-reared monkey
displaying fear of a live and toy snake, they were
rapidly conditioned to fear snakes (Cook and
Mineka 1990). In consequent experiments, the
laboratory-reared monkeys observed displays of
fear in response to toy snakes (predators) and
owers (harmless objects) or to toy crocodiles
(predators) and rabbits (harmless objects). Fear
responses were conditioned only for predators,
but not for owers and toy rabbits (Cook and
Mineka 1991). Since the laboratory-reared mon-
keys had no previous experiences with the stimuli
used in the experiment, these results provide sup-
port for an evolutionary basis to the prepared
learning (Öhman and Mineka 2001).
Third, common human fears seem to develop
at a time when the danger might be encountered.
Fears of heights and strangers, for example,
emerge in infants at about 6 months of age,
when infants begin to crawl away from their
mothers thereby increasing the risk of a fall
and/or kidnapping. The higher risk of an infant
being killed by strangers has been documented
both in nonhuman primates as well as in modern
humans. At the age of 2 years, when infant explo-
ration begins to be more intense, animal fears and
fear of darkness emerge (for a review, see Gullone
2000). Humans, unlike nocturnal animals, have
limited vision making them more vulnerable to
predators when their visual capacity is limited.
Fear of the dark restricts infant mobility thereby
decreasing vulnerability to predators. Later, when
the young child leaves the home base, agorapho-
bia, the fear of being in crowds or public places,
which makes escape difcult, may develop
(Marks and Nesse 1994). The intensity of fears
in children tend to decrease with age (Gullone
2000) which can be explained by their higher
physical and emotional independence from
Evolutionary Evidence for Fear
of Dangerous Animals
Snakes are viewed as prototypical stimuli of com-
mon fears of animals (Öhman and Mineka 2001).
Snakes are present on all continents except Ant-
arctica, and their putative fossils date back as far
as 150 million years. At this time, constrictor
snakes were critical predators of the small ances-
tors of modern placental mammals (Isbell 2009).
Note that carnivore predators occurred much later,
only about 4060 million years ago. Transitional
primate-like creatures were evolving ca. 65.5 mil-
lion years ago, and recent primates are still
attacked by snakes (Cook and Mineka 1991).
This evidence suggests that the evolution of pri-
mate defense against predators was inuenced by
The second line of evidence regarding danger
from snakes comes from introducing an effective
venom a new powerful weapon in the
predatorprey arms race with primates. Fossils
of snakes with venomous fangs from at least the
Lower Miocene have been discovered, i.e., far
before the rst ancestors of Homo appeared.
This evidence strongly suggests that interactions
between snakes and early humans could be
expected. Snake bite caused substantial human
mortality and disability, although these issues
have been largely neglected by health organiza-
tions. It is estimated that snake bites cause roughly
about 20,000125,000 deaths worldwide,
although these estimates are based on incomplete
data (Warrell 2010), partly because reporting is
not mandatory in many regions of the world. It can
be suggested that snake mortality was much
higher in our evolutionary past, when human
interaction with nature occurred daily and medical
help was highly limited (if any).
The early coexistence of dangerous snakes
with their mammalian prey may be the reason
2 Universal Human Fears
why snakes are frequently sources of phobias.
Robins and Regier (1991), for example, deter-
mined that bugs, mice, snakes or batswere the
most frequently cited category of phobic fears.
Indeed, snakes are traditionally labeled as the
least liked animals in a range of surveys on animal
fears, while certain other terrestrial predators such
as wolves or bears received more positive rank-
ings by people (Schlegel and Rupf 2010; Almeida
et al. 2014).
Threatening Objects Promote Visual
Coevolution with snakes as signicant primate
predators predicts that primates, including
humans, should have developed a specic visual
sensitivity for snake (i.e., danger) cues that pro-
motes vigilance for an early detection of stimuli to
escape and/or avoid potentially a deadly encoun-
ter with the predator and hence survive and repro-
duce (Öhman et al. 2001a). Neurobiological
research supports this idea, because amygdala
tunes visual brain areas for rapid perception of
fear-related stimuli. Furthermore, it seems that
specic neurons in the primate brain respond
especially quickly to images of snakes (Van Le
et al. 2013). Humans, similarly to nonhuman pri-
mates, seem to have no innate fear of snakes
(DeLoache and LoBue 2009), but show similar
abilities to condition snakes with something fear-
ful (LoBue and DeLoache 2010). Rakison and
Derringer (2008) found, for example, that
5-month-old infants look longer at a schematic
image of a spider or a snake relative to scrambled
versions of the same schematic image and look
equally long at nonthreatening images such as
To support the rapid detection of snakes rela-
tive to other non-treating stimuli, Öhman
et al. (2001a) compared the detection of a fear-
relevant target (a snake or a spider) among eight
fear-irrelevant distractors (owers or mushrooms)
with that of a fear-irrelevant target (a ower or a
mushroom) among fear-relevant distractors
(snakes or spiders). As expected, snakes and spi-
ders were detected more quickly than owers and
mushrooms. These ndings were repeatedly
reported in a number of studies, involving both
children and adults (for a review, see LoBue and
Rakison 2013). It can be argued that humans
should also be sensitive to a visual detection of
the emotional cues in the faces of other members
in the social group because signicant numbers of
violent deaths can be attributed to conicts
between conspecics similarly as with chimpan-
zees. The same paradigm suggesting that fear-
relevant stimuli receive rapid detection in order
to avoid potential threat, Öhman et al. (2001b)
found that threatening faces are detected by
humans among neutral faces more quickly than
friendly faces, a nding which was successfully
replicated by other researchers (for a review,
Öhman et al. 2001b; LoBue and Rakison 2013).
These ndings suggest that there is a clear bias for
threat in visual detection tasks.
Gender Differences in Common Fears
Girls exhibit more fears than boys (Arrindell
et al. 2003), and at least some of them can emerge
very early (Rakison 2009). In particular, girls
reported being more fearful of darkness, strange
sights and sounds, loneliness, personal relation-
ships, animals, injury, and being kidnapped,
robbed, or killed (Gullone 2000; Arrindell
et al. 2003). Boys reported being more fearful of
not being good and getting into trouble, night-
mares, and imaginary creatures including mon-
sters, gorillas, and dinosaurs (for a review, see
Gullone 2000). Gender socialization experiences
may contribute to the reporting of fear difference
by males and females. Girls may learn that it is
permissible to express fears, whereas boys are
expected to inhibit fears. Rakison (2009) found,
however, that 11-month-old female but not male
infants learn rapidly to associate negative facial
emotions with fear-relevant stimuli (snakes and
spiders) suggesting that socialization need not to
be the key factor responsible for gender differ-
ences in fearfulness.
Although gender differences in fears were
reported in a number of studies, their evolutionary
origin is much less clear. Certain researchers have
Universal Human Fears 3
suggested that a higher fear of large carnivore
predators in females can be explained by females
lower physical condition compared with the phys-
ical condition of males (Røskaft et al. 2003;
Prokop and Fančovičová 2013). Indeed, females
and children who are physically weaker than
males are less likely to survive predatory attacks
of large carnivores (Treves and Naughton-Treves
1999). The disease avoidance hypothesis suggests
that vulnerability to infectious diseases makes
people more sensitive to a potential danger.
Indeed, females are more disease vulnerable than
males, and more disease-vulnerable people per-
ceive animals as more dangerous than less
disease-vulnerable people (Prokop and
Fančovičová 2013). These two hypotheses can
be viewed as compatible, because disease vulner-
ability is associated with a poorer perceived phys-
ical condition (Prokop and Fančovičová 2013).
The parental investment hypothesis proposes
that females take care of children and have to be
more sensitive to danger in order to protect their
offspring (Røskaft et al. 2003). This hypothesis
has not received empirical support as yet.
Why Humans Display a Fear of Harmless
About 100 years ago, John Watson demonstrated
that an infant (9-month-old Little Albert) can be
conditioned to fear a white rat by pairing the
presentation of the rat with a loud aversive noise.
Upon seeing the rat, Little Albert became
extremely distressed, crying and crawling away.
Interestingly, Little Alberts fear was later gener-
alized to the sight of several other furry objects,
such as a rabbit, a furry dog, and a sealskin coat
and even a Santa Claus mask with white cotton
balls in the beard. It was later proposed of course
that classic conditioning is not the only way one
acquires fear. Observations, verbally transmitted
information, and some other mechanisms (LoBue
2013) can also develop fear.
This simple example of Little Alberts gener-
alization of fear may explain why humans mani-
fest a fear of certain fear-irrelevant stimuli:
harmless snakes (Arrindell et al. 2003)or
wormlike invertebrates (Schlegel et al. 2015) are
considered dangerous or unlikeable, although
they do not pose an actual danger. All of these
stimuli are associated with potentially dangerous
cues, because they supercially look like danger-
ous animals. The supercial perception of poten-
tially harmful stimuli is favored by natural
selection in order to minimize the likelihood of
failing to register the presence of genuine danger
(the smoke detector principle, Nesse 2005).
Although the avoidance of harmless snake could
be perceived as erroneous(false-positive error),
it is still less risky than erroneous detection of a
truly harmful snake (false-negative error). That is,
predictions guided by the evolutionary theory do
not propose that all fears should have reasonable
explanations in our ancestral past, but that certain
fears can also stem from similarities with fear-
relevant stimuli. Finally, some fears are condi-
tioned in everyday life. Children can, for example,
easily acquire fear of a medical doctor simply
because pain from vaccination is associated with
the doctor. The same mechanism can be applied to
dogs showing a fear of veterinarians.
The protective emotion of fear was highly bene-
cial in the ancestral environment where it evolved.
Modern society, where the risk of being attacked
by a predator is low, may perceive certain fears as
irrational, but a better understanding of our evo-
lutionary past would seem to be helpful in
reaching an understanding of our emotions. Com-
parative research on nonhuman primates and
human infants where socialization is minimal
seems to be promising in uncovering the origins
and adaptive functions of common fears.
Acknowledgments I thank David Livingstone for
improving the English. This study was partly funded by
grant VEGA no. 1/0104/16.
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Universal Human Fears 5
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... Such responses are known to be especially triggered by wild animals such as snakes, tigers and wolves, such as the one used in our design [38]. Moreover, such fears are considered 'universal', due to their evolutionary nature, meaning that they are experienced by all humans [61]. ...
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Fear is one of our most basic emotions. It is an important social signal and alerts us to when a situation is safe or risky. Interestingly, not all fears are created equal: Several researchers have proposed that humans develop specific fears, such as fear of threatening stimuli, more readily than others. Here we discuss three major theories of fear acquisition, and consider the possibility that some fears are privileged in learning. Second, we review a growing literature that suggests that humans have perceptual biases that quickly draw attention to threatening stimuli in the environment. In particular, we highlight recent developmental work that shows that even infants and young children respond rapidly to the presence of threat well before they acquire any threat-relevant fears. Finally, we argue that such biases may play a causal role in privileging fear learning for certain threats, and we suggest directions for future work that can clarify whether early biases in perception indeed facilitate the development of our most common fears.
Participants searched for discrepant fear-relevant pictures (snakes or spiders) in grid-pattern arrays of fear-irrelevant pictures belonging to the same category (flowers or mushrooms) and vice versa. Fear-relevant pictures were found more quickly than fear-irrelevant ones. Fear-relevant, but not fear-irrelevant, search was unaffected by the location of the target in the display and by the number of distractors, which suggests parallel search for fear-relevant targets and serial search for fear-irrelevant targets. Participants specifically fearful of snakes but not spiders (or vice versa) showed facilitated search for the feared objects but did not differ from controls in search for nonfeared fear-relevant or fear-irrelevant, targets. Thus, evolutionary relevant threatening stimuli were effective in capturing attention, and this effect was further facilitated if the stimulus was emotionally provocative.
An evolved module for fear elicitation and fear learning with 4 characteristics is proposed. (a) The fear module is preferentially activated in aversive contexts by stimuli that are fear relevant in an evolutionary perspective. (b) Its activation to such stimuli is automatic. (c) It is relatively impenetrable to cognitive control. (d) It originates in a dedicated neural circuitry, centered on the amygdala. Evidence supporting these propositions is reviewed from conditioning studies, both in humans and in monkeys; illusory correlation studies; studies using unreportable stimuli; and studies from animal neuroscience. The fear module is assumed to mediate an emotional level of fear learning that is relatively independent and dissociable from cognitive learning of stimulus relationships.
Flagship species play an important role in promoting nature conservation. However, although the significance of invertebrates in biodiversity and ecosystem services is undisputed, they are rarely used as flagship species. A focused approach to better understand the drivers of differences in attitudes toward invertebrates, and insects in particular, would be helpful for selecting and establishing insects as flagship species, especially in a local context for local conservation purposes. Using a standard questionnaire, a total of 363 children, predominantly aged 10 to 12 years, were asked about their attitudes toward 18 invertebrate species indigenous to Switzerland. The species, 14 insect species and four other invertebrates, were individually presented in a color photograph without any background information. Based on ordinal regression models, the survey revealed substantial affinity rating differences across the invertebrates selected. Gender, species knowledge, preferred leisure activities, and family membership of a nature protection organization proved to be significant predictors for children’s attitudes in general, and for some specific species in particular. Additionally, existing species knowledge was analyzed and was found to neither depend on school location (urban/rural) nor on gender. The authors propose the inclusion of local invertebrates and species knowledge in the curriculum in early years at primary school while applying teaching methods that allow for real-life experience.