Fear — impacts on decision-making and behavior

Fear is corrosive whether caused by events outside our immediate control or if purposefully used (for example, by politicians trying to gain or consolidate power). Fear impacts the decisions we make and the actions we take. We do things we would not do if the fear was not present. We believe things we normally would not. We act against our own best interests.

Quick bibliography: Articles–classic and recent–on the impacts of fear.

Duo, Q., Shen, H., Zhao, J., & Gong, X. (2016). Conformity behavior during a fire disaster. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 44(2), 313-324. [Cited by]

“A fire disaster can involve severe personal injury, and individuals may take various actions to respond to such threats—in particular, following others’ behavior when trying to escape. In this experimental study, 114 participants watched a video about escaping from a fire, then prepared an emotional-experience report and decided which of 2 or 4 options they would choose in a situation. Results revealed that individuals exposed to a fire situation experienced a significantly higher level of fear activation, inferior decision-making performance, and higher conformity tendency than did those exposed to a nonemergency situation. ”

Lindström, B., Golkar, A., Jangard, S., Tobler, P. N., & Olsson, A. (2019). Social threat learning transfers to decision making in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(10), 4732-4737. [PDF] [Cited by]

“In today’s world, mass-media and online social networks present us with unprecedented exposure to second-hand, vicarious experiences and thereby the chance of forming associations between previously innocuous events (e.g., being in a subway station) and aversive outcomes (e.g., footage or verbal reports from a violent terrorist attack) without direct experience. Such social threat, or fear, learning can have dramatic consequences, as manifested in acute stress symptoms and maladaptive fears. However, most research has so far focused on socially acquired threat responses that are expressed as increased arousal rather than active behavior. In three experiments (n = 120), we examined the effect of indirect experiences on behaviors by establishing a link between social threat learning and instrumental decision making. We contrasted learning from direct experience (i.e., Pavlovian conditioning) (experiment 1) against two common forms of social threat learning—social observation (experiment 2) and verbal instruction (experiment 3)—and how this learning transferred to subsequent instrumental decision making using behavioral experiments and computational modeling. We found that both types of social threat learning transfer to decision making in a strong and surprisingly inflexible manner. Notably, computational modeling indicated that the transfer of observational and instructed threat learning involved different computational mechanisms. Our results demonstrate the strong influence of others’ expressions of fear on one’s own decisions and have important implications for understanding both healthy and pathological human behaviors resulting from the indirect exposure to threatening events.”

Olsson, A., & Phelps, E. A. (2007). Social learning of fear. Nature Neuroscience, 10(9), 1095-1102. [Cited by]

“Research across species highlights the critical role of the amygdala in fear conditioning. However, fear conditioning, involving direct aversive experience, is only one means by which fears can be acquired. Exploiting aversive experiences of other individuals through social fear learning is less risky. Behavioral research provides important insights into the workings of social fear learning, and the neural mechanisms are beginning to be understood. We review research suggesting that an amygdala-centered model of fear conditioning can help to explain social learning of fear through observation and instruction. We also describe how observational and instructed fear is distinguished by involvement of additional neural systems implicated in social-emotional behavior, language and explicit memory, and propose a modified conditioning model to account for social fear learning. A better understanding of social fear learning promotes integration of biological principles of learning with cultural evolution. ”

Rachman, S. (1977). The conditioning theory of fear-acquisition: A critical examination. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 15(5), 375-387. [PDF] [Cited by]

“The conditioning theory of fear-acquisition is outlined and the supporting evidence and arguments presented. It is argued that the theory lacks comprehensiveness and is also inadequate in other respects.

Six arguments against acceptance of the theory are advanced. People fail to acquire fears in what are theoretically fear-evoking situations (e.g. air raids). It is difficult to produce conditioned fear reactions in human subjects in the laboratory. The theory rests on the untenable equipotentiality premise. The distribution of human fears is not consistent with the theory. Many phobic patients recount histories inconsistent with the theory. Lastly, fears can be acquired indirectly, contrary to the demands of the conditioning theory. It is suggested that fears can be acquired by three pathways: conditioning, vicarious exposures and by the transmission of information and instruction. Vicarious and informational transmission of fears can take place in the absence of direct contact with the fear stimuli.

Tittle, C. R. (1977). Sanction fear and the maintenance of social order. Social Forces, 55(3), 579–596. [Cited by]

“Eight independent variables suggested by extant theories of deviance/conformity are compared in ability to predict independently nine different kinds of self-estimated future deviance. Data were gathered in a sample survey of the populations aged 15 and over in New Jersey, Iowa, and Oregon. The results support the view that at least some kinds of sanction fear are major contributors to conformity. Fear of interpersonal loss of respect was found to be the second best predictor of the eight considered. But perceptions of general or legal sanctions proved to be of minor or only moderate importance. The findings indicate that the reinforcement value of a behavior, the probability of losing respect among those one knows personally, moral commitments, and differential association are the primary determinants of conformity. ”

For additional research about fear and its impacts on decision-making and behavior, please see the Science Primary Literature Database.

Questions?  Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).

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