Fear is an emotional response to threats and danger. It is a basic survival mechanism occurring in response to a specific stimulus, such as pain or the threat of pain. Psychologists John B. Watson and Paul Ekman have suggested that fear is one of a small set of innate emotions. This set also includes joy, sadness, and anger.

Fear should be distinguished from anxiety, which typically occurs without any external threat. Additionally, fear is related to the specific behaviors of escape and avoidance, whereas anxiety is the result of threats which are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.


The Old English term fǣr meant not the emotion engendered by a calamity or disaster, but rather the event itself. The first recorded usage of the term "fear" with the sense of the “emotion of fear” is found in a medieval work written in Middle English, composed circa 1290. The most probable explanation for the change in the meaning of the word "fear" is the existence in Old English of the related verb fǣran, which meant “to terrify, take by surprise”.


Fear can be described using different terms in relation to its varying degrees. Personal fear varies extremely in degree from mild caution to extreme phobia and paranoia. Fear is related to a number of emotional states including worry, anxiety, terror, fright, paranoia, horror, panic, persecution complex and dread.

Fear may be a factor within a larger social network, wherein personal fears are synergetically compounded as mass hysteria.

  • Paranoia is a term used to describe a psychosis of fear, described as a heightened perception of being persecuted, whether unfounded or otherwise. This degree of fear often indicates that one has changed their normal behavior in radical ways, and may have become extremely compulsive. Sometimes, the result of extreme paranoia is a phobia.
  • Distrust, in the context of interpersonal fear, is sometimes explained as the inward feeling of caution, usually focused on a person; representing an unwillingness to trust in someone else. Distrust is not a lack of faith or belief in someone, but a feeling of warning towards someone or something questionable or unknown. For example, one may "distrust" a stranger who acts in a way that is perceived as "odd". Likewise, one may "distrust" the safety of a rusty old bridge across a 100-foot drop.
  • Terror refers to a pronounced state of fear - which usually occurs just before the state of horror - when someone becomes overwhelmed with a sense of immediate danger. Also, it can be caused by perceiving a (possibly extreme) phobia. As a consequence, terror overwhelms the person to the point of making irrational choices and displaying atypical behavior.

Fear can also affect the subconscious and unconscious mind, most notably through nightmares.


Although fear is an innate response, objects of fear can be learned. This has been studied in psychology as fear conditioning, beginning with Watson's Little Albert experiment in 1920. In this study, an 11-month-old boy was conditioned to fear a white rat in the laboratory. In the real world, fear may also be acquired by a traumatic accident. For example, if a child falls into a well and struggles to get out, he or she may develop a fear of wells, enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) or of water (aquaphobia).

Researchers have found that certain fears (for instance, of animals and heights) are much more common than others (for instance, of flowers and clouds). They are also much easier to induce in the laboratory. This phenomenon has been called preparedness. Physiologically, the fear response is linked to activity in the amygdala of the limbic system.

The experience of fear may also be influenced by cultural trends. In the early 20th century, many people feared polio, a disease which cripples the body part it affects, leaving the body part immobilized for the rest of one's life.



In fear, one may go through various emotional stages. A good example of this is the cornered rat, which will try to run away until it is finally cornered by its predator, at which point it will become belligerent and fight back with heavy aggression until it either escapes, or is captured.

The same goes for most animals. Humans can become very intimidated by fear, causing them to go along with another's wishes without regard to their own input. They can also become equally violent and even deadly; it is an instinctive reaction caused by rising adrenaline levels, rather than a consciously thought-out decision. This is why, in many related cases, the death penalty cannot be made in a court of law.

The facial expression of fear includes the following components:

  • One's eyes widen (out of anticipation for what will happen next).
  • The pupils dilate (to take in more light).
  • The upper lip rises.
  • The brows draw together.
  • Lips stretch horizontally.


The physiological effects of fear can be better understood from the perspective of the sympathetic nervous responses (fight-or-flight), as compared to the parasympathetic response, which is a more relaxed state.

  • muscles used for physical movement are tightened and primed with oxygen, in preparation for a physical fight-or-flight response.
  • perspiration occurs due to blood being shunted from body's viscera to the peripheral parts of the body. Blood that is shunted from the viscera to the rest of the body will transfer, along with oxygen and nutrients, heat, prompting perspiration to cool the body.
  • when the stimulus is shocking or abrupt, a common reaction is to cover (or otherwise protect) vulnerable parts of the anatomy, particularly the face and head.
  • when a fear stimulus occurs unexpectedly, the victim of the fear response could possibly jump or give a small start.
  • the person's heart-rate and heartbeat may quicken.

Fear is the flip-side of anger in the in-built human 'fight or flight' response. Many people feel the effects of fear on a day-to-day basis in the workplace, through the stresses of a modern working environment. This fear has a direct correlation to one's working efficiency, and has been crystallised into a chart through an ongoing linear study in Bristol. The fear-o-meter shows the range of emotions caused by the latent fear which a significant workload and impending deadline can create. While one's ability to work effectively diminishes as the level of fear increases, productivity (on the other hand) increases exponentially as the impending deadline approaches. For example, a student might fail to start an essay until the level of fear reaches 5 or above, choosing to either go out or perform menial tasks until the fear has become sufficiently heightened.

  1. Satisfaction
  2. Ennui
  3. Despondency
  4. Anxiety
  5. Fear / Vexed
  6. Despair / Anger
  7. Apathy / Rage
  8. Terror / Apoplectic


The amygdala is a key brain structure in the neurobiology of fear. It is involved in the processing of negative emotions (such as fear and anger). Researchers have observed hyperactivity in the amygdala when patients who were shown threatening faces or confronted with frightening situations. Patients with a more severe social phobia showed a correlation with increased response in the amygdala. Studies have also shown that subjects exposed to images of frightened faces, or faces of people from another race, exhibit increased activity in the amygdala.

The fear response generated by the amygdala can be mitigated by another brain region known as the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, located in the frontal lobe. In a 2006 study by Columbia University, researchers observed that test subjects experienced less activity in the amygdala when they consciously perceived fearful stimuli than when they unconsciously perceived fearful stimuli. In the former case, they discovered the rostral anterior cingulate cortex activates to dampen activity in amygdala, granting the subjects a degree of emotional control.

Suppression of amygdala activity can also be achieved by pathogens. Rats infected with the toxoplasmosis parasite become less fearful of cats, sometimes even seeking out their urine-marked areas. This behavior often leads to them being eaten by cats; the parasite then reproduces within the body of the cat. There is evidence that the parasite concentrates itself in the amygdala of infected rats.

In religion

Fear of death

Some psychologists have addressed the hypotheses that fear of death may motivate one’s basic religious commitment, and on the other hand, may be allayed by some (but not all) religious orientations, due to the particular religion's assurances about afterlife. The empirical experiments have been equivocal. According to Herman Feifel, those with religious beliefs had more fear of death than the nonreligious; Wendell M. Swenson's experiment showed otherwise and Adolph E. Christ found that there is no relation between the two. According to Richard D. Kahoe and Rebecca Fox Dunn, John Hinton's finding might resolve the differing results: "The ten per cent of the subjects who were most firm in their faith and attended religious services weekly were the least afraid of dying, but those who held a loose religious faith were the most anxious, with the nonreligious being intermediate in death anxiety". Furthermore, a survey made by Richard D. Kahoe and Rebecca Fox Dunn among various Christian denominations showed a positive correlation between fear of death and dogmatic adherence to the religious doctrine. Furthermore, some religious orientations were more effective than others in allaying that fear.

Moral and legal issues

Since fear diminishes freedom of action, contracts entered into through fear may be judged invalid; similarly, fear sometimes excuses one from the application of the law in a particular case. It also excuses one from the penalty attached to an act contrary to the law. The cause of fear is found in either oneself, in a natural cause (intrinsic fear) or in another person (extrinsic fear). Fear may be grave, such for instance as would influence a steadfast person, or it may be slight, such as would affect a person of weak will. In order that fear may be considered grave, certain conditions are requisite: the fear must be grave in itself, and not merely in the estimation of the fearing person; it must be based on a reasonable foundation, and the execution of the threats must be possible and inevitable. Fear, again, is either just or unjust, according to the justness or otherwise of the reasons which lead to the use of fear as a compelling force. Reverential fear is that which may exist between superiors and their subjects. Grave fear diminishes willpower, but cannot be said to totally remove it (except in some exceptional cases). Slight fear (metus levis) is not considered to even diminish the willpower; hence the legal expression "Foolish fear is not a just excuse".

Death from fear

Research conducted at the University of California, San Diego and published in the British Medical Journal, suggests that deaths attributed to heart mortality increase under psychological stress, particularly terror. Otherwise healthy people have been known to be "scared to death" - that is, to suddenly die under extreme fear or emotional trauma. People of all ages have died from fright brought on by everything from earthquakes to amusement-park rides.

While the mechanism is not fully understood, it is believed that sudden death can occur from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by a terrifying event. Although the otherwise instinctive flight-or-fight response, which prepares the body for impending danger, is countered by the parasympathetic nervous system when the danger has passed, in certain cases an excessive response can damage the heart enough to kill.. A German study has found that fear can make blood clot and increase the risk of thrombosis.

See also


Further reading

  • Joanna Bourke, Fear: a cultural history, Virago (2005)
  • Corey Robin, Fear: the history of a political idea, Oxford University Press (2004)
  • Duenwald, Mary. "The Psychology of ...Facial Expressions" Discovery Magazine Vol. 26 NO. 1
  • Krishnamurti, J., On Fear, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-251014-2 (1995)

External links

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