I REALLY do not like spiders.
I have arachnophobia: an irrational fear of spiders. Ultimately, the fear is just that: irrational - the chances are spiders will never pose an immediate threat to me, yet I still can’t help feeling uneasy at the mere mention of anything with eight legs.
So why am I still scared of them? And how do people come to possess these irrational fears?
Behavioral approaches towards phobias would argue that fear is acquired through learning, or ‘conditioning’ towards specific objects.
Classical conditioning, for example, argues that fear becomes a conditioned response an individual associates with a neutral stimuli. A classic (but highly unethical) study by Watson and Raynor (1920) used classical conditioning to make a young baby known as ‘Little Albert’ develop irrational fears towards mice, monkeys and even a Father Christmas mask. Every time Albert was presented with, say, a mouse (his favourite), the researchers would create an unpleasant sound by hitting a bell with a hammer, making poor Albert cry. He began to associate these objects with that harsh noise, and thus developed fear as a conditioned response.
Operant conditioning would argue that fear is reinforced following negative experiences with a fear-inducing stimuli. For example, I always remember feeling sheer panic when I was young and I turned to face a wall next to my bed, where a massive spider was crawling around.
Similarly, Jeffrey Lockwood wrote The Infested Mind detailing how he ended up irrationally fearing the one thing he studies as a living: insects (entomophobia). He describes how the overwhelming capacity of the grasshoppers generated a panic attack; which was “extremely disturbing” for him. A behaviourist explanation of Lockwood’s entomophobia suggests that Lockwood’s mind began to associate the once harmless stimuli of insects (and grasshoppers in particular) with the sense of feeling overwhelmed and helpless; and thus the conditioned response ended up being fear.
What makes the behaviourist approach so appealing is that it can provide a rationale explanation even when phobias become downright bizarre.
For example, who’s not to say that nomophobia; the fear of being without your mobile, or peladophobia; the fear of bald people, can result from a single negative experience with bald people or without mobile contact? Maybe a bald person chased you down the road, maybe you didn’t have your mobile so couldn’t call the police on Crazy Baldy. It happens, and with it, the development of an irrational phobia.
Coulrophobia; the fear of clowns, is another good example.
At what point in our history did we as humans make the transition from associating clowns as joyful, child-friendly jokers to perceiving them as psychotic and downright frightening?
Believe it or not, a young Charles Dickens may have been indirectly responsible for this transition. He was charged with editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi; the first recognizable “modern” clown who, despite his popularity, used his clown character to joke about his tragic life, often joking: “I am grim-all-day, but I will make you laugh at night”.
Onwards in clown history, a clown became less of an innocent figure and became entangled in all sorts of negative connotations, always hidden behind a painted face. John Wayne Gacy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers, was a registered clown. Clowns became primary antagonists in horror films such as Clownhouse and novels such as Stephen King’s It. The human mind may be reacting to these negative connotations with a fearful response.
An evolutionary approach argues that fear evolved to become a form of preparedness. The foreboding anxiety often associated with fear manifested into a defence mechanism, to be used against situations which posed a threat to human survival, and thus our chances of successful reproduction; a process our old pal Jeffrey Lockwood described as “survival of the scaredest”. Therefore, some fears arguably evolved to increase our awareness of situations that threatened survival; and in that, reproductive sources.
As a result, entomophobia; the fear of insects, and arachnophobia, potentially evolved as early humans quickly learned to be cautious about the dangers these various critters could pose. Despite their smaller stature, critters could still sting us, bite us and invade our bodies (*shudder*). It is therefore possible that humans evolved to become cautious of investigating small crevices and particular crops such as fruit trees, where various insects and spiders may be waiting. Just like shopkeepers and myself are now increasingly cautious of the threat of say, huntsman spiders, hiding amongst a box of imported bananas.
Another example could be achluophobia – the fear of the dark. Humans often associate darkness with the feeling of vulnerability. This vulnerability may derive from the notion that early humanity was far from the top of the food chain, and our predators would often hunt us under the cover of darkness. Our ancestors in Africa would have feared the big cats using the darkness as cover to hunt, and thus their ancient brains have been wired to be wary of this. As a result of evolution, the modern human brain has come to possess this caution; although nowadays it’s less prowling big cats, more ‘bogeymen’ and monsters in the closet. Perceptions about what might be lurking in the shadows may have changed, but the association between darkness and vulnerability still remains.
So, whether our fears are behavioural, or provide some sort of evolutionary advantage, it is clear that they are often ingrained and unavoidable. The human race will continue to sleep with one eye open for a long time to come.