Chapter 8: Fear, Anxiety, and Stress

Fear: Eliciting Events

As stated on the last page, fear occurs when we experience a threat to our physical safety.  Many believe that fear is an adaptation that increased the survival of our genes by helping us to avoid death or bodily harm.  We will start by discussing how the four components of an emotion change during a fear experience.

Eliciting Events

 Arrindell et al. (1991) identified four types of events that elicit fear, as shown in Table 1.   Further, each of these eliciting events underlies four of the five classes of specific phobias (American Psychological Association, 2013), as indicated in the righthand column.  Many believe that these fears are adaptive (Öhman, 2008).  For instance, the fear of animals protects us from predators, while social threats developed dominance hierarchies that facilitated group harmony.

Table 1

 Eliciting Events of Fear

Eliciting Events of Fear
Type of Eliciting Event Definition Examples Relation to Phobia
Fear of Death Fears elicited by situations that might cause death Injuries, illness, blood, surgical procedures Blood-injury-injection phobia
Fear of Animals Fear of animals that could cause death Insects, reptiles, snakes, harmless animals, domestic animals Animal Phobia
Agoraphobia Fear of being trapped Public spaces, crowds, closed spaces, places without clear escape route Agoraphobia
Social Threat Fear about interpersonal events Criticism, social interactions, rejection, conflict Social Phobia

Note. The fifth class of phobia in the DSM-5 (American Psychological Association, 2013) is natural environment, which includes fear of heights, storms, and water.  This fifth class was not identified in this study

Two problems exist with this categorization of eliciting events.  The first is that social threat may be pre-stimulus instead of post-stimulus.  For instance, worrying about an upcoming potential criticism or rejection might actually be an anxiety. When we experience rejection, the rejection might cause an emotion other than fear (e.g., disappointment, sadness).  The second problem is that the elicitors under fear of death could elicit the emotion disgust instead of fear.  Recent research even suggests phobias are a combination of fear and disgust (Cisler, Olatunji, & Lohr, 2009). In fact, body envelope violations (when the internal of our body is revealed, such as during surgery) are a common elicitor of disgust and also underlie blood-injury-injection phobia (Rozin et al., 1999, 2008).  Finally, this classification does not identify fear caused by the threat of other humans – humans who could injure or harm us.  This threat might fall under fear of animals or fear of death.


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Psychology of Human Emotion. by Michelle Yarwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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