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Most of us experience specific fears at one point or another, like of death or the future, but psychologists believe there might be one underlying fear from which all others originate.

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[♪ INTRO ].

Here's a question for you: What's something you're afraid of? The first answer that comes to mind might be your typical boggart stuff.

Like, small children in horror movies, taking a test in a class that you haven't been to all semester, that kind of thing. But what about when you used to leap into bed so the monsters couldn't nip at your toes? Or that time your flight was so bumpy you thought it was all over?

Or, maybe worst of all, when you took off your cap and gown and wondered what was next? Sorry, that just got real. Most of us experience these common fears — of the dark, of death, or of the future — at some point in our lives.

And according to psychologists, there could be a reason for that. Some researchers have argued that there might be one fundamental fear underlying all of these things. One you can trace all of your worries to: the fear of the unknown.

So when Albus Dumbledore said, “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more” — he might've actually been right. Jo Rowling strikes again. Psychologists — maybe unsurprisingly — have been trying to understand fear for a long time.

It was obvious early on that people have individual differences that make them more or less likely to feel afraid and anxious. But what was less clear was why some fears are more common than others. One idea was that certain stimuli might be quote-unquote “biologically prepared” to provoke fear, which was basically a fancy way of saying that being afraid of some stuff is innate because it helps keep us alive.

In theory, this could explain why so many of us are afraid of things like spiders and snakes. The problem, though, is that most spiders aren't really that dangerous. Generally speaking, they're not as nearly as dangerous as, say, mushrooms.

But most of us don't find mushrooms especially terrifying. Another problem is that research shows that most six-month-old infants aren't afraid of things like snakes, which seems to suggest that we learn to fear them later. Four-months-olds, however, do generally show fear in response to unfamiliar stimuli.

And evolutionarily speaking, the unknown makes a lot more sense as a universal, innate thing to be afraid of. If you've never encountered something before, you don't know how to deal with it… which means a little caution might be in order. The idea of this kind of broad, fundamental fear — rather than innate fears to specific stimuli — was proposed by a clinical psychologist in 1991.

He suggested a few criteria for this base fear: It had to be of something inherently unpleasant, it had to be distinct from other fundamental fears, and it had to explain other common things we're afraid of. He believed there were three of them: the fears of anxiety, of physical injury, and of negative evaluation. And there was some support for this idea.

Like, a 1993 study that surveyed 100 subjects found that the common fears people reported, like being terrified of heights, were well explained by these fundamental fears. And the categories also seemed to be distinct from each other. But more recently, psychologists have started to argue that additional criteria are necessary to define a fundamental fear.

In addition to the stuff we've already mentioned, these researchers suggest that they should also be distributed evenly throughout the population and be supported by an evolutionary explanation. It also shouldn't be possible to reduce them to anything more fundamental. This means that the fears of anxiety, physical injury, and negative evaluation might not pass the test.

For one, not everybody has them — like, plenty of people, from thrill seekers to deadline junkies, actually seek out anxiety. The bigger problem, though, is that all of these can be reduced or attributed to other fears… one of which is the fear of the unknown. And this fear does meet all the criteria.

As the researchers writing about it point out, it very well could be the one fear to rule them all. In case you were wondering: Yes. The Tolkien reference is deliberate and heavy-handed in the paper, too.

Because sometimes, scientists are a bunch of dorks. Of course, fear of the unknown isn't an easy thing to validate in the lab. But there are plenty of studies to suggest that we prefer familiarity and the sure thing, and that they can have a pretty wild effect on our behavior.

Research shows that we're more likely to visit a travel destination that we've been to before, and we're more likely to attend a baseball game if we feel confident that our team will win. And, although no one wants to be zapped, knowing when electrical shocks are coming even makes the experience less stressful and anxiety-provoking than not knowing. There's also clinical evidence to suggest that the fear of the unknown really gets to us.

If you're uncomfortable with uncertainty, studies have shown, you're likely to have more fear and anxiety. And those with certain disorders — anything from panic and social anxiety disorders to. OCD and depression — seem to be especially affected by this fear.

While it does seem like there's something there, it's hard to say for sure whether fundamental fears exist, let alone whether the fear of the unknown is the base human fear. If it is, though, it would be a pretty satisfying answer to a lot of questions we have about ourselves, big and small. It could help explain why horror movies stop being as scary once you've seen the monster, or why there's literally nothing worse than waiting to find out what someone thinks or whether you got that job.

For now, though, we've just got to deal with the fact that there's still a lot of, well, unknowns when it comes to our fear of the unknown. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you want to learn even more about why stuff freaks us out, you can watch our episode about why scientists think we're specifically afraid of the dark. [♪ OUTRO ].