How Fear Works

Common Fears

A Gallup Poll conducted in 2005 reveals the most common fears of teenagers in the United States. The top 10 list goes like this:

  1. Terrorist attacks
  2. Spiders
  3. Death
  4. Failure
  5. War
  6. Heights
  7. Crime/Violence
  8. Being alone
  9. The future
  10. Nuclear war

Most of these basic fears are carried into adulthood. Other common fears include public speaking, going to the dentist, pain, cancer and snakes. Many of us fear the same things -- so are there such things as universal fears?


Some studies show that humans might be genetically predisposed to fear certain harmful things like spiders, snakes and rats -- animals that once posed a real danger to human beings because they were poisonous or carried disease. Fear of snakes, for example, has been found in people who have never even been in the presence of a snake. This makes sense if you think about fear as an evolutionary instinct embedded in the human consciousness. This idea of the universal fear is supported by such reputable sources as popular television: NBC's "Fear Factor" offers a weekly $50,000 prize to the contestant who can perform tasks like sticking his head into a box filled with hundreds of spiders and eating a blended rat smoothie.

The idea is also supported by scientific research. Psychologist Martin Seligman performed a classical conditioning experiment in which he showed subjects pictures of certain objects and then administered an electric shock. The idea was to create a phobia (an intense, irrational fear) of the object in the picture. When the picture was of something like a spider or a snake, it took only two to four shocks to establish a phobia. When the picture was of something like a flower or a tree, it took a lot more shocks to get a real fear going.

But while there may be "universal fears," there are also fears that are particular to individuals, communities, regions or even cultures. Someone who grew up in the city probably has a more intense fear of being mugged than someone who has spent most of his life on a farm. People living in South Florida may have a stronger fear of hurricanes than people living in Kansas, and people in Kansas probably have a deeper fear of tornadoes than do people in Vermont. What we fear says a lot about our life experience. There is a phobia called taijin kyofusho that is considered in the psychiatric community (according to the DSM IV) to be a "culturally distinctive phobia in Japan." Taijin kyofusho is "the fear of offending other persons by an excess of modesty or showing respect." The intricate social rituals that are part of life in Japan have led to a Japanese-specific fear.

Experiencing fear every now and then is a normal part of life. But living with chronic fear can be both physically and emotionally debilitating. Living with an impaired immune response and high blood pressure causes illness, and refusing to participate in daily activities because you might be confronted with heights or social interaction doesn't make for a very fulfilling life. So what can we do about our fears?