Fear not

January 15, 2019

News, Voices

Some people’s gut reaction to spiders is fear. We asked Kristjen Lundberg, assistant professor of social psychology, to tell us more about this reaction.
Interview by Matthew Dewald

Where does a fear like this come from?
One argument is that there are certain stimuli that we are biologically prepared to have a certain instinctual emotional response to because of threats and opportunities that have occurred repeatedly in our ancestral past.

Tarantula! movie posterWhat are other theories?
Other people say that you were not born to be afraid of spiders or even to feel fear, exactly. We have this idea that we have a program for fear built into our brains and that fear should look like one distinct thing, but the heart rate goes up sometimes and down others. Fear might sometimes cause us to want to fight, sometimes to freeze, and sometimes to flee.

We all agree socially to call a broad category of responses “fear” in certain contexts.

You’re saying fear is a social construct?
Psychologists sometimes say emotions are like money. Money has value, but only because we agree it does. Fear is the same thing. We experience it as very real, and it has consequences. But we weren’t born with a module for fear inside our heads. We learned what fear is and what to be afraid of. You’ve learned about emotions from your parents, your peers — from culture.

Are those two views consistent?
Both camps, so to speak, agree that evolution happens.

One says that evolution gave us fear. The other says that evolution gave us these lower-level processes that we use to make sense of our experiences, and one of the ways we make sense of our experiences is by naming them.

If a spider appeared right now, we might react differently. Why?
Let’s imagine that we both have a similar initial reaction — like higher physiological activation — that signals to us that this spider is something to pay attention to.

You might sit up startled and label the experience: “That was surprising.” You might even laugh and experience positive emotions, which settle your physiological arousal.

But I might label my reaction differently. Based on factors like my life experiences, my current physiological state, and the situation itself, my mind says, “I’m afraid of those things.”

If so, I now have made this state meaningful to me in a way that you have not. For me, this is fear, and the world seems riskier to me than to you. I might even amplify my fear by thinking, “These things really make me panic.” I might have trouble regulating my emotions.

What might help a person with a dire fear of spiders?
If we’re talking about clinical cases of arachnophobia, then exposure therapy under the guidance of a cognitive behavioral therapist is what’s recommended.

How does that work, exactly?
Typically, you expose yourself to the thing that scares you in controlled but gradually increasing doses. As you do this, you’re reflecting on your experiences. “So, I got this close to the spider. Did anything bad happen? No, I’m actually fine.”

There’s a related idea — that experiencing negative things is to be avoided. We don’t want anyone to feel negative emotions all the time or in ways that interfere with their daily functioning, but in small doses, they won’t hurt you.

We often engage in a form of emotion regulation called situation selection — choosing whether to be in situations that make you feel a certain way, like avoiding situations that scare you. However, if you avoided being around spiders, then you wouldn’t have the opportunity to disconfirm your fear.

In other words, as you are exposed to the spider, you could probe the contents of your mind. What did you think was going to happen — that you’d feel fear and you don’t like feeling fear? Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but did the spider fly across the room and land on your face? No. You could see that nothing bad happened.

Maybe next time, you get a little bit closer. Maybe eventually, you hold one.