Fight or flight? The psychology of fear

(Image credit: Unknown)

First things first: what are fear instincts? You hear a loud bang, you feel frightened, you jump and turn toward it. All this happens without any thought. This is generally what we mean by your instincts - those reactions that happen automatically without you putting much or any conscious thought into it. Instincts exist because they helped keep our ancestors, human or otherwise, alive long enough to have children. You may think they have little relevance to the modern world but they don’t turn off. It would be nice to think when you put your finger in a baby’s hand and he/she grasps it that this is showing affection, but it is an instinct left over from when we were primates and babies needed to grab on to their mothers or they’d fall out of the tree.

Think you’re a wimp because your legs go to jelly when you’re up high or you jump on the nearest chair at the sight of a mouse? You’re not. Humans instinctively fear:

  • Heights
  • Loud noises
  • Big animals with big teeth
  • Strangers
  • Small fast moving animals

These fears are present in you without learning. You have a subtle instinctual fear system which makes connections with things that could be a danger to you and makes you fear them. This can reinforce or over-exaggerate ‘instinctual’ fears, causing phobias. It can also make you misjudge risk in the modern world. This is because the system relies on the evidence presented to it, though it often gets it wrong.

For example, you always hear on the news when a plane crashes but never that a plane flew uneventfully from one place to another. Your fear system therefore draws the conclusion that planes are dangerous. You rarely hear about car crashes compared to the hours and hours you spend driving uneventfully so you decide driving is safe. The fact that statistically you’re more likely to be killed driving to the airport doesn’t change this - that kind of logical thinking doesn’t feed into our instinctual system. So people start getting anxious when they get on the plane, not when they get in the car.

In many ways the problem is not so much with the system but rather with the information you are presented with. Your instinctual fear system didn’t develop with 24-hour news and the internet but does react to these sources of information. Unfortunately, it reacts in a very unsophisticated way - the more often it hears something the more it decides it’s true. This is why in general peoples’ ability to judge the relative risk of different things is hopeless. Your instincts respond to the fear of murder by a serial killer and cause you to avoid strangers. The fact most victims of murder know their attacker makes no difference.

So when do you trust your instincts? Talking about whether to trust your instincts or not is the wrong way to look at it. Whether you like it or not you are an animal and you respond automatically to lots of different situations. Because it happens without thought you don’t realise how much of your behaviour is being run by instincts.

  •  Walking down the street and someone smiles at you - you smile back
  • Fuses blow in the house and lights go off after playing a horror game such as The Evil Within - you feel scared

You don’t think these things through you just do them.

So how do you get over that fear? Well, ducking when you hear a loud bang and not standing on cliff edges are instincts you don’t want to lose. Taking some time to think about how you come to conclusions about more complex fears, like whether to approach that girl in Starbucks, may well show your instincts are often wrong and need re-educating.

Dr Russell Green is a practicing psychiatrist who happens to be terrified of spiders. Russell is registered with the General Medical Council (4622936) as a specialist in general psychiatry and is a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK.

Developed by Shinji Mikami, creator of the seminal Resident Evil series, and Tango Gameworks, The Evil Within embodies the meaning of pure survival horror. Highly-crafted environments, horrifying anxiety, and an intricate story are combined to create an immersive world that will bring you to the height of tension. With limited resources at your disposal, you’ll fight for survival and experience profound fear in this perfect blend of horror and action.

The Evil Within is out now on PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Max Anderton

Max was the head of digital content for Men's Fitness which worked alongside Coach between 2015 and 2019.