Change: Why do we fear it?

“Fear of change is a natural impulse; the desire to pull up the drawbridge follows. But as we have repeatedly reported, that response is irrational and self-defeating” (New Scientist, 18 June 2016, volume 230(3078), 5).

Why do human beings fear and resist change? Every day in our lives, more things change than stay the same. Change is the most stable and enduring condition of life on planet Earth.

Yet, collectively, humans do all they can to fight the very notion of change. We find it frightening to the point where we are paralyzed by fear, anxiety, and stress–and ripe for manipulation by actors who use that fear to gain power (political, economic, social, etc.) at our expense and cost.

Why do humans fear change? How do humans react to the prospect of change? What are the consequences of those reactions?

What does the research say?

**created November 2021**

Featured articles:

*Barbalet, J. M. (1995). Climates of fear and socio-political change. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25(1), 15-33. [Cited by]

Argues that social and organizational change results from containment behavior in response to fear on the part of elite social groups. Relative power disparities frequently lead to this elite fear. Rather than fight or flight, containment is a significant fear response for both subordinate and elite groups, and when fear is seen to have a social object, the possibility of collective action to remove the source of fear can be recognized.”

*Craig, M. A., Rucker, J. M., & Richeson, J. A. (2018). The Pitfalls and Promise of Increasing Racial Diversity: Threat, Contact, and Race Relations in the 21st Century. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 188-193. [PDF] [Cited by]

“A decades-long trend toward greater racial and ethnic diversity in the United States is expected to continue, with White Americans projected to constitute less than 50% of the national population by mid-century. The present review integrates recent empirical research on the effects of making this population change salient with research on how actual diversity affects Whites Americans’ intergroup attitudes and behavior. Specifically, we offer a framework for understanding and predicting the effects of anticipated increases in racial diversity that highlights the competing influences of intergroup concerns, such as relative group status and power, and more interpersonal experiences, such as positive contact, on intergroup relations. We close with a discussion of the likely moderators of the effects of the increasing national racial diversity and consider implications of this societal change for racial equity in the 21st century.”

*Dowbiggin, I. R. (2009). High anxieties: The social construction of anxiety disorders. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry / La Revue Canadienne De Psychiatrie, 54(7), 429-436. [PDF] [Cited by]

Anxiety has always been part of the human condition, with accounts of its various manifestations, including acute shyness and stage fright, dating back to classical antiquity. Nonetheless, since the end of the Second World War, reported levels of anxiety have risen alarmingly. At the beginning of the 21st century, anxiety disorders constitute the most prevalent mental health problem around the globe, afflicting millions of people. What social factors account for this stunning development in the mental health field during the past half century? Some observers target the ever-increasing pace and demands of modern life. Nonetheless, a larger body of evidence suggests that the prevalence of anxiety is due less to these pressures themselves than to a prevailing social ethos that teaches people that anxiety-related symptoms are a socially and medically legitimate response to life in the modern age.”

*Jackson, D. D. (2010). The Fear of Change (1967). Journal of Systemic Therapies, 29(2), 69-73. [Cited by]

“In a world that to some observers is wildly chaotic, it may appear absurd to postulate that the primary flaw in the modern condition is fear of change. Our economic, political, religious, social, psychological, and biological systems are torn by the continual tug-of-war waged by conflicting tendencies. The thrust forward, the push toward change, renewal, and growth, is violently or stubbornly resisted by an equal will to maintain what is and has been, reinforced by rigid personal, interpersonal, and cultural systems grounded in fear of the unknown.“

*Kelly, A. C., & Dupasquier, J. (2016). Social safeness mediates the relationship between recalled parental warmth and the capacity for self-compassion and receiving compassion. Personality and Individual Differences, 89, 157-161. [PDF] [Cited by]

“We examine the relations between parental rearing, social safeness, and compassion.

Researchers have theorized that experiences of emotional warmth in early life influence the development of the soothing system, an affect regulation system thought to underpin individuals’ capacity for self-compassion and receiving compassion. The current study tested the theory that feelings of social safeness, also considered an output of the soothing system, might be a key mechanism through which parental warmth and capacities for compassion are linked. One-hundred and fifty-three female college students completed online measures of parental rearing behaviors, social safeness, positive and negative affect, self-compassion, received social support, and fears of compassion. Bootstrapping analyses supported our hypothesized mediational model. Controlling for overprotective and rejecting parenting behaviors, recalled parental warmth was linked to a greater capacity for self-compassion (high self-compassion, low fear of self-compassion) and receiving compassion (high received social support, low fear of receiving compassion) indirectly through affective experiences in general, and feelings of social safeness in particular. These findings suggest that differences in feelings of connectedness, reassurance, and contentment in social relationships might help to explain why children who recall fewer experiences of emotional warmth with parents are less capable and more afraid of self-compassion and receiving compassion. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.”

For more research and information, search Science Primary Literature (external database).

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