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‘Tis the Season to Be Scary: How we (and our children) learn to be afraid

Published on Psychology Today

As Halloween approaches, many of us have witches, ghosts, and goblins on the mind. Scary movies are running back to back on television stations, and storefronts are plastered with posters of jack-o-lanterns and skeletons. For some, this is an exciting time of year, a time when we can relish in the thrill of being afraid. But for others, creepy skulls aren’t so appealing, and the idea of the Headless Horseman evokes horror instead of fun. Why do some of us go out to celebrate the holiday of fear while others just stay shuttered at home?

To answer these questions, we need to first ask what fear is and how do we come to be afraid. Classically, researchers have believed that fear is a dedicated circuit in the brain—it’s a unique character, with its own personality and signature, kind of like the characters in the movie Inside Out. According to this perspective, fear is something we’re born with, it functions to protect us from threatening things in the environment, and it’s something that other animals experience as well. This seems like a pretty reasonable explanation given that we’ve all experienced fear, and we’ve all witnessed other animals behaving fearfully to some extent. However, when you take a closer look, it turns out that fear is a bit more complicated than you might think.

First of all, contrary to popular belief, fear isn’t something babies are born with. Newborns can certainly react negatively to something in the environment—what we call negative feeling, or affect—like when they have a dirty diaper, when they’re hungry, or when they’re tired. But these initial negative feelings can’t really be parsed into specific negative emotions like anger, sadness, and fear; specific emotions are responses to specific things in the environment, and they require that babies know something about that environment. Most of us feel angry, for example, when we’re blocked from doing something that we want to do. Babies are no different, and around 4 or 5 months of age, you might see a baby get angry if you hold his hands down, or if you stop him from throwing a bowl of cheerios on the floor (which my own baby really really wants to do all the time). For babies to experience anger, they have to be able to plan their actions and make predictions about the effect of those actions on the outside world, which isn’t something they can do until they are several months old.

In this way, fear is even more complicated than anger. In order to experience fear, babies have to recognize what’s familiar, what’s not familiar, and then decide that the unfamiliar thing or person might be threatening. Given the complexity of this kind of understanding, babies don’t demonstrate fear for the first time until around 8 to 12 months of age, and it’s usually in response to new people or events, particularly strangers. Importantly, not all babies react to strangers with fear, and even the ones that do don’t react with fear in all situations—context matters a lot. For example, the most fearful reactions to strangers can be observed in strange places, like a laboratory, when a baby is constrained in a high chair, or when a baby’s mother isn’t in the room. Few (and sometimes no) fearful responses to strangers are seen when babies are in their own homes or when they are sitting on their mothers’ laps (LoBue & Adolph, 2019). In other words, babies are more likely to judge the stranger to be threatening when they’re not in a safe space; in contrast, when babies are at home or in the comfort of their mothers’ arms, they are less likely to decide that a stranger’s approach is threatening and are therefore much less likely to react with fear.

Since we’re not born afraid, that means that most of our fears are learned at some point in our lives, and they’re not all learned in the same way. Some fears can be learned by conditioning, or by having a negative experience with something. For example, you might learn to be afraid of dogs if you’ve been bitten by a dog, or you might learn to be afraid of bees after getting stung. But we can also develop fears by watching someone else’s fearful reaction. For example, instead of learning to be afraid of dogs by being bitten, we can also develop a fear of dogs by watching a friend freak out at the sight of a snarling Chihuahua. Likewise, we can learn to be afraid of dogs by hearing negative information as well, like hearing from your mom that little dogs bite (LoBue, Kim, & Delgado, 2019; Muris & Field, 2011).

Although fears are learned, and we can learn them in a variety of ways, not all not fears are created equal—some fears are much more common than others. Snake and spider fears, for example, are some of the most common fears in the world. They are so common that some researchers have proposed that we are born with them, or that we develop them very early on, based on a biological predisposition or brain mechanism that evolved specifically to react to dangerous predators (Öhman & Mineka, 2001). However, research with infants and young children suggests otherwise. From an early age, infants, children, and adults do detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly. For example, when presented with a bunch of images on a touchscreen, both preschool-aged children and adults detect snakes and spiders more quickly than a variety of other things, including flowers, mushrooms, frogs, and cockroaches (LoBue & DeLoache, 2008; LoBue, 2010). But, they don’t seem to be afraid of them. In fact, babies will reach for and try to pick up moving snakes from a screen (DeLoache & LoBue, 2009), and 1 ½ to 3-year-olds interact with a live snake and spider just as much as a live fish and hamster. In fact, they show an avid (and equal) interest in all of these animals, even the scary ones (LoBue, Bloom Pickard, Sherman, Axford, & DeLoache, 2013). This suggests that we aren’t necessarily born with a snake or spider fear.

Instead, some have reasoned that because we might be prone to pay a lot of attention to snakes and spiders, or because of their threatening properties, there is more negative information available about snakes and spiders than for other animals and objects. Indeed, snakes and spiders are often depicted as symbols of evil and fear, from Roman mythology (e.g., Medusa) and the Bible (e.g., the snake in the Garden of Eden), to modern day films like Arachnophobia, Anaconda, and Snakes on a Plane. Think about it: When was the last time you heard something positive about a snake or spider? Maybe it’s not surprising that we’re so afraid of them.

Importantly, there’s a relationship between a parent’s fears and their children’s fears (Muris, Steerneman, Merckelbach, & Meesters, 1996), so if you’re a parent, children might pick up some of their most common fears not just from having negative experiences, but by watching and listening to you. In other words, they might see your reaction to scary things, or hear threatening information from their parents, their friends, or from media, like on television or in storybooks. It’s also important to remember that because fear involves reasoning about what’s going on in the environment, what children are most afraid of at different ages changes as their thinking about the world becomes more sophisticated. As mentioned above, in infancy and toddlerhood, the most common fears are of new people, places, and things, followed by fear of animals in early childhood, fear of blood and injury in middle childhood, and then fear of rejection in adolescence (Muris & Field, 2011).

And just like some fears are learned more easily than others, some kids are more prone to behaving fearfully than others. In fact, some kids have a bias, or the temperamental characteristics to react more strongly to new things and new people than other kids. These kids, who might also come off as sensitive or shy, might be particularly prone to react negatively when being presented with negative information or scary things. If this sounds like your child, you might want to be aware of how you react to the world around you. And even if your child is more of the fearless kind, it’s important to remember that they are learning from the information they receive all the time, which can be positive if the information is positive, but can also be negative if the information is negative.

The moral of the story here is that we’re not born with a little voice named “Fear” in our brains that turns on and off in response to certain things or at certain times of the year. Emotions are much more complicated than that. Our bodies are constantly responding to changes in the environment and then we have to think about and interpret that response based on what’s happening in the world around us, and what’s happened in our past. Our bodies might react to the appearance of a snake—detecting it quickly, making our hearts beat faster, preparing us to act—but how we interpret that response might differ based on whether we determine that we’re in a safe place (like the zoo), or whether we might not feel so safe (like on a hike in the woods). And given that we are constantly interpreting our bodies’ responses to the world, our point of view matters, and will differ based on who we are. When going down a steep hill, most of us will experience a similar bodily response, like that feeling of our stomachs dropping. But, while some of us like that feeling, and seek out steep heights by climbing mountains or riding roller coasters, others do not, and do everything they can to avoid heights. Fear is all about how threatened we feel, which is why many of us look forward to Halloween—it’s a time when we can experience the feeling of fright, all the while knowing that we’re actually in a safe place.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood/pxhere


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