Monday, October 26, 2009


“AHHH!!!” Screams the little child as she exchanges paths with a spider. Now this leads me to wonder...WHY are we afraid of certain things? HOW do we develop these phobias?

William Hamilton and George Williams, through Darwin’s theory of evolution, say that “fear of death, fear of injury and fear of snakes are main examples of inheritable behaviors.” Additionally, according to Stephen Pinker, an MIT psychologist, fear of snakes and spiders are in our DNA as a result of natural selection. However, not everyone is afraid of these items listed above. For example, some people are not afraid of snakes (don’t you remember those on the Discovery Channel doing dangerous stunts with snakes?). Also, in New Guinea people exhibit little apprehension when in the presence of snakes. It is not valid to assume these fears.

It is also a generalization to say that everybody is afraid of death. There are certain stages in life where the phobia is distinct. When you were a little child, did you think of dying? Most likely not. You were just born and just experiencing the world, yet to understand its complications. Death is a natural process, so being afraid of it makes this phobia seem unnatural. It will happen to everyone. Being afraid of it does not make it come sooner or later; it depends on how you live your life and the day-to-day events that spontaneously occur. However, “a healthy fear of death would be the fear of dying unprepared,” as humans dislike experiencing the unexpected: loud noises, sudden pokes and startling appearances. Being prepared can only go so far…you cannot be prepared for everything that happens in life. How does one prepare for death? A realistic answer would be to set up funeral arrangements and the details associated with the death process, such as clothes and burial or cremation. In this discussion, fear of death appears to be learned. Little children do not perceive death as threatening until later on in life. Also, with the snake example, fear of snakes is learned. What we see our environment influences how we view the world and how our mind is shaped. People develop phobias through learning and association.


  1. It is interesting that you mention that fear is not - as some scientists may otherwise suggest - a purely inheritable trait. This then strengthens your argument that our behaviour is shaped more by factors of "nurture" than of "nature".

    Your post got me thinking about another aspect of our attitudes to fear - that is, a fear of something does not necessarily exist in a state of stasis. Just as fear can be acquired over a traumatic experience, it can also be overcome through experience and self-rationalization.

    The fact that our fears can change across time and space at different stages of our lives can therefore be used to justify the argument for "nurture", but it certainly would not be a stretch to consider our basic ability to feel "fear" to be a result of forces of "nature".

  2. Thank you for your response, nonlinearperspectives.

    Yes, the fact that fear is not pre-programmed in our brains supports the nurture theory.

    If human minds were already built and programmed before birth, then we would be more like robots...with software dictating our every move. However, I have heard the human mind being a computer.

    Like most things, fear is not stable; it has its ups and downs. Everybody has to be afraid of something, right?...but they may not express fear 24/7. Like you said, traumatic events can bring out fears as well as overcome them.

    I agree with you on that last point. In my next post, I will discuss the blank slate theory.