Strong FearPublished 7 May, 2012
What is fear? Roughly, fear is an emotion designed to motivate appropriate behavior, especially escape, when faced with a threat such as a predator or enemy. The explanation for the emotion of fear, then, lies in the fitness benefits of avoiding being killed by enemies or predators and such like. People who got scared and so fled from charging velociraptors left more offspring, on average, than those who didn’t.
Now, as an empirical matter, humans do not show fear responses only to those things that can, in fact, harm them. Take, for instance, the movie Hugo, adored by critics and The People (though I found watching it, frankly, a bit misérable); consider the scene in which a small audience is watching a moving image of an approaching train. The viewers scramble out of the way of the image of the train, even though they know that there is no actual train about to hit them. It appears to come hurtling toward them, and they flee from this appearance. From this and our other everyday experiences, we know that, empirically, humans show fear responses not only to any number of stimuli that can’t hurt them, but also to stimuli that the people who are fearful know, for sure, can’t hurt them.
So, we might now say that there are two distinguishable phenomena. The first is garden variety fear, which is something like being afraid and having the propensity to flee when there is something in the world that, as a matter of fact, actually poses a threat; the (ultimate) explanation for this “garden variety fear” is the one I indicated above, the fitness benefits of avoiding being killed. Such individuals are just regular “fearful.”
However, movies of trains are not, on this way of speaking, garden variety. We’ll call cases in which people show fear when they can’t, in fact, be harmed by stimuli that only appear to be dangerous as “Strong Fear.” We might put it this way:
Fear, as it is used in evolutionary psychology, differs from Strong Fear because a Garden Variety Fearful individual is only afraid if there are actual benefits from being afraid. Thus, a Fearful individual will never show fear to artificially scary stimuli. In contrast, a person who is Strongly Fearful will be afraid of scary stimuli even when there are no actual benefits from being afraid, and even if the person knows that there are no such benefits.
This might strike some readers as a bit loopy. However, the structure of the argument above is no different from the structure of the argument made in the service of distinguishing Reciprocity from Strong Reciprocity:
Reciprocal altruism, as it is frequently used in evolutionary biology, also differs fundamentally from strong reciprocity because a reciprocal altruist only cooperates if there are future returns from cooperation. Thus a reciprocally altruistic player B will always defect in a sequential one-shot PD. (Fehr et al., 2002, p. 4)
In the quotation directly above, a distinction is being drawn between a garden variety reciprocally altruistic individual – they reciprocate only when there are actual potential downstream benefits – and a strongly reciprocal individual, who, just like the Strongly Fearful individual, will reciprocate even when there are no actual benefits from being reciprocal and knows that there are no such benefits. (Compare this sentence to the parallel sentence above. And we can argue about the claim about the conditions under which reciprocal altruists should be expected to cooperate – which is an important point but also not relevant to my present point – which is only about the distinction being made.)
Once we have this distinction, we can begin to try to explain the empirical phenomenon of Strong Fear. Here are two different explanations. One is the “mismatch” or “big mistake” explanation. This view is familiar to students of evolutionary psychology. Stimuli that match the input conditions of evolved systems evoke the responses for which these systems evolved, even if the link between the stimuli and the reason they were selected has been broken in modern environments. (See, for instance, Hagen & Hammerstein, 2006). In the past percepts of looming predators reliably correlated with the presence of a looming predator. In modern environments, looming predators can be simulated, breaking this reliable correlation.
Here’s a second sort of explanation. Perhaps there was some reproductive advantage to fleeing from simulacra of things that could cause harm. Again, some readers might find this to be an unusual sort of argument, but again I propose it as a parallel to one actually on offer. Using a similar rhetorical riff to the one I’m favoring here, Price et al. (2007) pointed to the consumption of pornography, a pattern of (unbelievably popular) behavior that carries no obvious benefits. Gintis, replying to this example, wrote that: “the capacity to be motivated by artificial visual material may well be an adaptation.” This explanation is that there were fitness advantages of some type to being motivated by artificial stimuli; getting turned on by porn, according to this view, is functional. Again, the analogous argument here would be that there was some fitness advantage to being afraid of images of things that actually couldn’t hurt the viewer, that people who fled from safe but scary-looking things (somehow) out-reproduced people who did not.
Now, I find this explanation implausible on the face of it, but it is an explanation, though one would want to know what fitness benefits Gintis has in mind when he envisions the advantages to being aroused by pornography.
Of course, these two explanations do not exhaust the range of possible explanations. Perhaps there was some group-wide benefit to people fleeing from images of trains that that led to a between-group selection pressure that more than countered the individual costly behavior of uselessly fleeing harmless stimuli, for example.
In any case, whatever the explanation for Strong Fear, it’s important to bear in mind that the term refers to a phenomenon, a set of observations that people show fear reactions to stimuli that can’t, as a matter of fact, harm them. It is not itself an explanation for anything. Referring to Strong Fear as a model or an explanation for some other set of behaviors would be a mistake (perhaps a “Big Mistake”), confusing the thing to be explained with the explanation for it.
(Left to the student: fear is considered something of an aversive state, yet people spend half a billion dollars to see horror movies. Discuss.)
(Hat tip: Mike McCullough)
Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U., & Gächter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation and the enforcement of social norms. Human Nature, 13, 1–25
Gintis, H. (2007). Unifying the behavioral sciences II. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 45-53.
Hagen, E. H., & Hammerstein, P. (2006). Game theory and human evolution: A critique of some recent interpretations of experimental games. Theoretical Population Biology, 69, 339-348.
Price, M. E., Brown, W. M., & Curry, O. S. (2007). The integrative framework for the behavioural sciences has already been discovered, and it is the adaptationist approach. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 39-40.
Burnham, T., & Phelan, J. (2000). Mean genes: From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts. New York, NY: Perseus.