What is fear and how it works

Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis.

In humans and animals, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate. An irrational fear is called a phobia.

Psychologists such as John B. Watson, Robert Plutchik, and Paul Ekman have suggested that there is only a small set of basic or innate emotions and that fear is one of them. This hypothesized set includes such emotions as acute stress reaction, anger, angst, anxiety, fright, horror, joy, panic, and sadness. Fear is closely related to, but should be distinguished from, the emotion anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable. The fear response serves survival by generating appropriate behavioral responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution.

Learned fear: The case of  “Little Albert”

John B. Watson (1878-1958) said that learning is what matters in what a person is and not the inborn instincts, impulses, drives, ID (read the previous post about ID, EGO, SUPEREGO)  or unconscious motivation. An understanding of learning will encompass all aspects of personality. Mentalistic concepts, not grounded in reality, should be rejected.

1920: Developing fear; Watson and Rosalie Rayner.

11 months old Albert who enjoyed playing with a cute white rat was made afraid of it by linking a loud frightening sound with the appearance of the rat. The experiment was further expanded and Watson and Rayner demonstrated that the fear of the rat could be generalized to all sorts of stimuli: a dog, a cotton ball and a Santa Claus.  Watson and Rayner couldn’t get a chance to undo the learnin as the child’s mother removed him from the hospital.

This is called classical conditioning (Ivan Pavlov 1849-1936) and is a type of learning in which a previously stimulus eliciting a response that was originally a neutral stimulus, because the neutral stimulus has been closely associated with the other stimulus.

Basic terminology in classical conditioning 

  1. Reflex: an automatic, unlearned response resulting from a specific stimulus.
  2. Unconditioned stimulus (UCS): a stimulus that elicits a response reflexively and reliably.
  3. Unconditioned response (UCR): a neutral, reflexive, reliable response of the UCS.
  4. Conditioned stimulus (CS): a primarily neutral stimulus which when paired with the UCS, strats evoking a response (different from its natural response) and the same as UCR.
  5. Conditioned response (CR): after conditioning, the CS begins to elicit a new, learned response.

diagram 6


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