Image: Scream Queens
By: Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne.
A life without fear sounds idyllic, but it would be no paradise.
Fear protects us from present danger, alerts us to future threat, sharpens our minds and blunts our selfishness. Friedrich Nietzsche once said that fear is the mother of morals, and people who lack it do indeed tend to be nasty, brutish and short-lived.
While useful to a point, people often suffer from an excess of fear. Although many of us are afraid of snakes, spiders, heights and blood, when these normal fears are taken to extremes they become phobias.
To qualify as a phobia, a fear must be lasting, intense and seen by the sufferer as excessive and irrational. It must also be a source of distress or impairment in the person’s occupational life and social relationships.
Phobias affect about 10% of the general population at some point in their lives, with women affected twice as commonly as men.
What are we afraid of?
Phobias commonly involve objects and situations that were realistic dangers for our distant ancestors: poisonous or vicious animals and invitations to injury. As a result, many people are terrified of things that no longer pose a contemporary threat.
Ancestral fears are learnt with remarkable ease. One study found that young rhesus monkeys acquired a fear of snakes when they viewed a film of older monkeys acting terrified in the presence of a snake, but did not come to fear flowers when they viewed monkeys going ape in the presence of a blossom. Fears related to things that were threats to our forebears are more easily acquired than others. (Post continues after gallery.)