“Why do people fear different things?” asks Gerd Gigerenzer in his book Risk Savvy. Many Americans are afraid of clowns, actor Kevin Hart is afraid of basically all bugs and animals, and as Gigerenzer writes in his book, I (like most Americans) would be afraid to go pick mushrooms in the wild to eat for dinner. The social imitation of fear, Gigerenzer explains, is often at the heart of many of our phobias. Most Americans probably haven’t had a personal bad experience with creepy clowns, few of us have ever picked the wrong mushroom for dinner and died, and most of us probably haven’t had near lethal encounters with bugs or animals. It is easy to understand why a toddler who was chased or bit by a dog might be afraid of animals, but it is simply comical that Kevin Hart is afraid of harmless butterflies and mice.
Much of what we fear comes from social learning, picking up on what others fear, and learning to fear that thing ourselves. Gigerenzer explains that the social imitation of fear can be a benefit and serve as protection for us, but that it isn’t without its own costs. Regarding the psychology of our fear he writes, “Fear whatever your social group fears. This simple principle protects us when personal experience might be lethal. At the same time, it can also make us fear the wrong things.”
Fears that keep us away from the edge of dangerous cliffs or keep us away from people with dangerous weapons can save our life. We can’t afford to learn to fear something lethal from experience – if you fall from a 100 foot cliff you won’t have a chance to learn to be more careful in the future. Fearing dangerous cliffs because everyone else in your tribe fears cliffs is a safer option.
However, this does lead us to fears that are unreasonable. It is very unlikely that any of us will be murdered by a creepy clown in the dead of night. However, a few years back pranksters started standing on street corners dressed as creepy clowns, and they scared lots of people across the country. I know people who had nightmares and were very frightened by the thought of these clowns, and were terrified of even the prospect of seeing a creepy clown on the street corner. Horror movies and common discussions of clown fears prime us to be afraid when there is no threat to us, and no real reason to be afraid. The social imitation of fear which helped our ancestors learn and survive together from the experiences of others, has been hijacked by horror movies and pranksters to create fear and anxiety for no meaningful reason.