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Definition: Fear from Black's Medical Dictionary, 43rd Edition

An emotional condition provoked by danger and usually characterised by unpleasant subjective feelings accompanied by physiological and behavioural changes. The heart rate increases, sweating occurs and the blood pressure rises. Sometimes fear of certain events or places may develop into a phobia: for example, agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces.

Summary Article: Fear
From The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology and Behavioral Science

Fear may be the most important emotion for the survival of the human species. The experience of fear is the immediate subjective experience of apprehension marked by activation of the fight or flight response. The experience of fear is best understood on the basis of its principle function. According to Seligman ((1971)), “the great majority of phobias are about object(s) of natural importance to the survival of the species.” In the most severe of circumstances (e.g., in the presence of a fast-approaching predator), fear activates the organism to flee or battle for its life. A less severe illustration of fear function is seen in day-to-day social interactions in which individuals avoid saying or doing embarrassing things in order to prevent social rejection or maintain companionship.

Fear is not a lump (Rachman, (1990)), meaning that it cannot be conceptualized as a single entity and must instead be studied as a multidimensional construct and as a collection of related phenomena that differ depending on the experience and on the individual. There are three dimensions of fear involving physiological, behavioral, and cognitive processes (Borkovec, (1976)). One or more of these dimensions help characterize an experience as a fearful one. In some cases all three are present in comparable amounts, but in some cases the three dimensions are desynchronized and disproportionate. Thus, the subjective nature of fear can be different in different individuals (Rachman, (1978)).


Much of the processing of fearful situations is carried out in the limbic system. This is due in large part to the necessity of rapid processing and responding to threatening stimuli (Hope, (1996)). Information is first processed in the amygdala where it is then transferred to the basal ganglia for motor processing and then the frontal cortex. In cases where immediate responding is required, the information bypasses further processing and is projected directly from the amygdala to the brain stem.

Changes in the sympathetic nervous system are the most common psychophysiological indices of fearful responding. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system helps the organism protect itself from danger. Increased heart rate, respiration, and perspiration, as well as decreased gastrointestinal function and vascular constriction, are all common changes in the sympathetic nervous system. These autonomic changes are not all required in order for fear to be present, but they are indices that are commonly associated with fearful responding (Rachman, (1990)).


The acts of escape and avoidance are the most common behavioral indices of fear and represent the most direct survival function. Avoidance is manifest in multiple forms, from overt observable behaviors (e.g., fleeing or refusing to enter a room) to more covert behaviors (e.g., engaging in ritualistic safety behaviors such as hand washing). The motivation of these behaviors is to thwart harm to the self. Although avoidance is the most common behavior associated with fear, the act of freezing is sometimes seen in extremely fear-provoking situations, such as panic attacks or imminent death.


Research on the cognitive dimension of fear has led to a greater understanding of its role in the etiology and maintenance of fear. The most direct form of assessment is through standardized psychological tests. In addition, research on information processing has revealed distinct cognitive biases for fear relevant information (Hope, (1996)). Most people display a propensity to allocate large amounts of their attentional resources to fear related stimuli (e.g. threatening words, images, or sounds). Fearful individuals show even greater attentional biases, interpret information related to their fears as more threatening, and evidence biases in memory regarding threatening information.

Acquisition of Fear

Conditioning theory was the dominant explanation of fear acquisition for much of the twentieth century. Mowrer’s ((1960)) two-stage model of fear acquisition and maintenance asserted that fear is first established through classical conditioning and is then maintained via avoidant behaviors. One major limitation of Mowrer’s theory was its inability to explain why some fears were so much more common and easily trained (Rachman, (1990)). These observations led to the development and support of the biological preparedness theory of fear acquisition (Seligman, (1971)). This theory claimed that humans (and other animals) are more prone to acquire fears of certain objects (e.g., spiders) in comparison to others (e.g., sheep) as an evolutionary function. Subsequent study of this theory has yielded mixed results, but the fundamental tenets still play an important role in modern learning theories.

Classical conditioning theory was eventually replaced by more advanced and complete theories of fear acquisition in order to explain indirect or vicarious acquisition of fear (Rachman, (1990)). Modern theories of fear acquisition attest that it is possible to acquire fear through three pathways: direct conditioning, vicarious experience, and information transfer (Rachman, (1978), (1990)). Vicarious learning results from the modeling of fearful behavior or through the observation of threat or harm impacting others. Fear can also be acquired through exposure to fear-relevant information and subsequent cognitive appraisals of threat and danger. Currently, no one theory explains all of the ways that individuals can acquire a fear. However, substantial improvements have been made in complex models that go into much greater detail to better explain fear acquisition, especially the fear seen in individuals with anxiety disorders (see Foa & Kozak, (1986)).

Modification of Fear

The reduction of fear can also occur through multiple pathways. Basic and clinical research have focused largely on the use of behavioral modification for the reduction of fear, specifically exposure techniques. Repeated exposure to feared stimuli in the absence of real harm reduces the intensity of physiological responding through the process of habituation (Barlow, (2002)). Oftentimes, appraisals of threat associated with the feared stimuli are corrected and avoidant behaviors extinguished with these techniques. Fear modification can also occur without ever coming into contact with the feared stimuli. Examples of this include exposure to corrective information (e.g., cognitive therapy) about perceived threats, corrective modeling, and imaginal exposures (Foa & Kozak, (1986)).

Related Emotions

The experiences of panic, fear, and anxiety are often times used interchangeably in research literature. Panic is a basic and possibly innate alarm system that human beings sometimes call fear (Barlow, (2002)). Fear is a functional reaction that results in the flight response to escape and avoid harm. Anxiety is future oriented, usually perceptual, and intended to maintain vigilance for danger (Barlow, (2002)). Anxiety may incorporate multiple emotions and result in the experience of distress. Several other emotions co-occur with anxiety and present in ways that are analogous to fear, the most germane of which is disgust. Both fear and disgust mediate several anxiety disorders, such as phobias and some forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

See also

Anxiety; Emotions.

  • Barlow, D. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Borkovec, T. D. (1976). Physiological and cognitive processes in the regulation of anxiety. In Schwartz, J. E. & Shapiro, D. (Eds.), Consciousness and self-regulation: Advances in research (pp. 261-309). New York: Plenum Press.
  • Foa, E. B., & Kozak, M. J. (1986). Emotional processing of fear: Exposure to corrective information. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 20-35.
  • Hope, D. (1996). Nebraska symposium on motivation, 1995: Perspectives on anxiety, panic, and fear. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Mowrer, H. O. (1960). Learning theory and behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Rachman, S. J. (1978). Human fears: A three systems analysis. Scandanavian Journal of Behaviour Therapy, 7, 237-245.
  • Rachman, S. (1990). Fear and courage (2nd ed.). New York: W. H. Freeman.
  • Seligman, M. E. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior Therapy, 2, 307-320.
  • Suggested Reading
  • Kleinknecht, R. A. (1986). The anxious self: Diagnosis and treatment of fears and phobias. New York: Human Sciences Press.
    University of Arkansas
    Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.

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