Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Personality: Self concept · Personality testing · Theories · Mind-body problem

This article is in need of attention from a psychologist/academic expert on the subject.
Please help recruit one, or improve this page yourself if you are qualified.
This banner appears on articles that are weak and whose contents should be approached with academic caution.

Fear is an emotional state and is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, whether it be real or imagined. Fear also can be described as a feeling of extreme dislike of some conditions/objects, such as: fear of darkness, etc. It is one of the basic emotions.

Fear is an adaptive emotion, helping us avoid dangerous or threatening situations but where it is persistent and counterproductive it can lead to problems of clinical severity, particularly where it triggers anxiety.

Fear inside a person has different degrees and varies from one person to another (see also phobia). If not properly handled, fear can lead to social problems. People who experience intense fear have been known to commit irrational and/or dangerous acts.

Some philosophers have considered fear to be a useless emotion; other thinkers note the usefulness of fear as a warning of potentially unpleasant consequences.


A vivid description of fear was provided by Charles Darwin in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals:

Fear is often preceded by astonishment, and is so far akin to it, that both lead to the senses of sight and hearing being instantly aroused. In both cases the eyes and mouth are widely opened, and the eyebrows raised. The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless and breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation. The heart beats quickly and violently, so that it palpitates or knocks against the ribs... That the skin is much affected under the sense of great fear, we see in the marvellous manner in which perspiration immediately exudes from it... The hairs also on the skin stand erect; and the superficial muscles shiver. In connection witih the disturbed action of the heart, the breathing is hurried. The salivary glands act imperfectly; the mouth becomes dry, and is often opened and shut.[1]

The facial expression of fear includes the widening of the eyes (out of anticipation for what will happen next); the pupils dilate (to take in more light); the upper lip rises, the brows draw together, and the lips stretch horizontally. The physiological effects of fear can be better understood from the perspective of the sympathetic nervous responses (fight-or-flight), as compared to the parasympathetic response, which is a more relaxed state. Muscles used for physical movement are tightened and primed with oxygen, in preparation for a physical fight-or-flight response. Perspiration occurs due to blood being shunted from body's viscera to the peripheral parts of the body. Blood that is shunted from the viscera to the rest of the body will transfer, along with oxygen and nutrients, heat, prompting perspiration to cool the body. When the stimulus is shocking or abrupt, a common reaction is to cover (or otherwise protect) vulnerable parts of the anatomy, particularly the face and head. When a fear stimulus occurs unexpectedly, the victim of the fear response could possibly jump or give a small start. The person's heart-rate and heartbeat may quicken.


Fear can be described with different terms in relation to the degree of fear that is experienced. It varies from mild caution to extreme phobia and paranoia. Fear is related to a number of additional cognitive and emotional states including worry, anxiety, terror, horror, panic, and dread. As an individual emotional state, fear can affect the unconscious mind, where it can become manifested in the form of nightmares. Fear may also be experienced within a larger group or social network. In this way, personal fears are compounded by social influence to become mass hysteria.

The experience of distrust can be explained as a feeling of mild fear or caution, usually in response to an unfamiliar or potentially dangerous person. Distrust may occur as a feeling of warning towards someone or something that is questionable or unknown. For example, one may distrust a stranger who acts in a way that is perceived as odd or unusual. Likewise, one may distrust the safety of a rusty old bridge across a 100-foot drop. Distrust may serve as an adaptive, early warning signal for situations that could lead to greater fear and danger.

Terror is an acute and pronounced form of fear. It is an overwhelming sense of immediate personal danger. It can also be caused by perceiving the object of a phobia. Terror may overwhelm a person to the point of making irrational choices and atypical behavior. Paranoia is a term used to describe a psychosis of fear. It is experienced as longstanding feelings and perceptions of being persecuted. Paranoia is an extreme emotional state combined with cognitions, or more specifially, delusions that one is in danger. This degree of fear may indicate that one has changed his or her normal behavior in extreme or maladaptive ways.

Common fears

According to surveys, some of the most commonly feared objects are spiders, snakes, heights, water, enclosed spaces, tunnels and bridges, social rejection, failure, public speaking and shoes. In an innovative test of what people fear the most, Bill Tancer analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, "fear of...". This follows the assumption that people tend to seek information on the issues that concern them the most. His top ten list of fears consisted of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, success, and driving.[2] In general, people appear to be most afraid of two things: the threat of pain or death, and the threat of social rejection or isolation.

In a 2005 Gallup poll, a national sample of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were asked what they feared the most. The question was open ended and participants were able to say whatever they wanted. The most frequently cited fear (mentioned by 8% of the teens) was terrorism. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, heights, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war.[3]

Fear in children

Causes of fear

Main article: Evolution and fear
Main article: Genetics and fear

People develop specific fears as a result of learning. This has been studied in psychology as fear conditioning, beginning with John B. Watson's Little Albert experiment in 1920. In this study, an 11-month-old boy was conditioned to fear a white rat in the laboratory. The fear became generalized to include other white, furry objects. In the real world, fear can be acquired by a frightening traumatic accident. For example, if a child falls into a well and struggles to get out, he or she may develop a fear of wells, heights (acrophobia), enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), or water (aquaphobia).

Although fear is learned, the capacity to fear is part of human nature. Many studies have found that certain fears (e.g. animals, heights) are much more common than others (e.g. flowers, clouds). These fears are also easier to induce in the laboratory. This phenomenon is known as preparedness. Because early humans that were quick to fear dangerous situations were more likely to survive and reproduce, preparedness is theorized to be a genetic effect that is the result of natural selection.

The experience of fear is affected by historical and cultural influences. For example, in the early 20th Century, many Americans feared polio, a disease that cripples the body part it affects, leaving that body part immobilized for the rest of one's life. There are also consistent cross-cultural differences in how people respond to fear. Display rules affect how likely people are to show the facial expression of fear and other emotions.

Assessment of fear

Fear can be described by different terms in accordance with its relative degrees.

Main article: Fear - Assessment tools
Main article: Fear Survey Schedule

Neurophysiology of fear

In 2005, University of Toronto researchers traced the origin of memories to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.[1]. While there is some controversy as to the role of the amygdala.

Main article: Neurophysiology of fear

See also

References & Bibliography

Key texts


Gray, J. A. (1987). The Psychology of Fear and Stress (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  • Davis, M. and Schlesinger, L. S., (1989). Temporal specificity of fear conditioning: effects of different conditioned stimulus-unconditioned stimulus intervals on the fear-potentiated startle effect , Journal of Experimental Psychology, Animal Behavior Processes 15 295-310.
  • Maltby N., Kirsch, I.. Mayers, M. and Allen, G. J. (2002) Virtual reality exposure therapy for the treatment of fear of flying: A controlled investigation, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 70(5), 1112-18.
  • Pare, D. (2002). Mechanisms of Pavlovian fear conditioning: has the engram been located? , Trends in Neuroscience 25 436-7.
  • Schafe, G. E., Nader, K., Blair, H. T., LeDoux, J. E. (2001). Memory consolidation of Pavlovian fear conditioning: a cellular and molecular perspective , Trends in Neuroscience 24, 540-46.

Additional material


  • Joanna Bourke (2005), Fear: a cultural history, Virago
  • Corey Robin (2004), Fear: the history of a political idea, Oxford University Press


  • Duenwald, Mary. "The Psychology of ...Facial Expressions" Discovery Magazine Vol. 26 NO. 1
  • Janis, I.L. and Feshbach, S. (1963) Effects of fear arousing communications, Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 48: 78-92.
  • McGaugh, J. L., Castellano, C. and Brioni, J. D. (1990). Picrotoxin enhances latent extinction of conditioned fear , Behavioral Neuroscience, 104, 262-65

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. Munger, M. (2003). The history of psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, pg. 221. Originally from The expression of emotion in man and animals, pg. 290.
  2. Tancer, B. (2008). Click: What millions of people are doing online and why it matters. New York: Hyperion.
  3. Gallup Poll: What Frightens America's Youth, March 29, 2005 Retrieved November 24, 2008.