Why is being scared so fun? - Margee Kerr
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One of the most interesting things about studying fear is looking at the social constructions of fear and how culture and socialization influence what we’re afraid of. Through fear conditioning, which is connecting a neutral stimulus with a negative consequence, we can create a fear. For a good explanation of fear conditioning, watch Peggy Andover’s “The Difference between classical and operant conditioning”. The research conducted with a subject named “Little Albert” highlighted this process, albeit in an unethical manner. So we know that we can learn to fear and this means our socialization and the society in which we are raised are going to have a lot to do with what we find scary. For example, vampires, clowns, and zombies are all “big” scary characters in the US, but in Japan ghosts are more often the monster of choice.
When it comes to enjoying fear, it is critical to have a good understanding of yourself so you know what is too much for you. Everyone has their own definitions of what is “fun” scary and what is just downright horrifying. For more information on the importance of individual differences check out this article in the Atlantic by Allegra Ringo: Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear?
If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind the fight or flight response, check out “The science of stage fright (and how to overcome it)” by Mikael Cho and research by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University who has studied fear response and the brain. LeDoux highlights the importance of separating the physiological response - i.e. fight or flight - from the meaning we give to the experience.
Finally, bear in mind that there are real negative consequences associated with fear. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, and many other affective disorders can all be exacerbated through exposure to scary or frightening situations. New studies on the connection between fear and affective disorders is helping researchers to understand how to best treat those who are struggling. To learn more about this new research, including one of Margee's own studies looking at emotions in the real world, visit the University of Pittsburgh’s Program in Cognitive Affective Neuroscience.
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