A recent YouGov survey asked British citizens to rate their level of fear relating to 13 common phobias. The results are in, and the British public are most scared of… heights. The top fears of the UK, shown in the survey, are not unreasonable and can be explained by psychological theory.
The survey showed heights to be the biggest fear among respondents, with 23 percent declaring themselves “very afraid” of heights, and a further 35 percent answering “a little afraid.” Other top fears included snakes, public speaking, spiders, and being closed in a small space.
Before addressing the matter of phobias, first the survey itself should be examined, so that a trivial YouGov poll does get mistaken for valid scientific research. The YouGov survey does not actually address the issue of phobia, but rather uses common established phobias as questions. It asks participants whether they are “a little afraid,” or “very afraid,” of the proposed fear.
Being “a little,” or even “very afraid” is not the same as having a phobia, as every sufferer will be quick to inform. A phobia is actually classified as a highly irrational fear, characterized by a very high level of distress, anxiety, and panic, as well as an overwhelming urge to avoid contact with the fear.
The fears of the UK mentioned in the survey are nonetheless based on common phobias, which can be better explained through the perspective of psychological theory.
Snakes and spiders for example, two of the most highly rated fears in the survey, and both common phobias, can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. In prehistoric society humans would have come into regular and direct contact with potentially life-threatening animals, such as venomous snakes and poisonous spiders. The fear aroused by such creatures is still a great benefit to the survival of some individual’s today, and would have been even more crucial for our ancestors.
Public speaking, although not as life-threatening as dangerous animals, can be partially explained from an evolutionary perspective; the discomfort felt around large unfamiliar groups could represent the discomfort that would have been felt around an unfamiliar tribe in ancient times. The fear of public speaking is often highly social too, and can often involve the fear of judgement in many ways.
The fear of heights, and of small spaces are a little different. Rationally speaking, there are obvious reasons why humans might have built in fear mechanisms for heights and small spaces; to prevent themselves from getting trapped, or from falling from a great height. The general consensus among psychologists is that early experience or trauma can amplify the fears, which become phobias as they are reinforced throughout life.
All of the fears mentioned in the survey are for the most part, completely rational, and if all of the respondents were to answer without bravado, perhaps the results would more likely read nearly 100 percent at least “a little” scared of heights.
Only when fears become completely irrational, and cause immense anxiety, are they classified as phobias. The mild-moderate fears of the UK survey, along with their phobia counterparts, can be explained, and often treated, by psychological understanding.
By Matthew Warburton