Evolutionary Learning: Fear Conditioning is the Product of Evolutionary Learning in Humans

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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Fearless individuals do not have normal fear responses to scary situations (“Eight Facts You Didn’t Know About Fear,” 2011). Fear can be characterized by anxiety and agitation due to the anticipation of impending danger (Delgado, Olsson, & Phelps, 2006). Research is lacking in the realm of fear conditioning and its relation to evolution and overall human development. Fear conditioning is a product of evolutionary learning in humans. Because of this evolutionary learning, humans can unconsciously develop fears.

Lipp et al. (2014) aimed to understand how subliminal images could elicit an unconscious fear of snakes and spiders.

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There were two groups: the Snake group and the Wallaby group. Each group was further divided into two sub-groups. For the Snake group, one subgroup was shown masked images, while the other was shown unmasked pictures. The same division was applied to the Wallaby group. The level of fear among the two subsets that were shown masked images was higher than that among those shown unmasked images. This result suggests that subliminal imaging influences the level of fear people experience. Upon being exposed to these subliminal images, individuals developed an unconscious fear of snakes, likely due to their subconscious minds viewing the images and associating them with a reason to fear snakes and wallabies.

The two unmasked groups were shown the images with a shock, but their level of fear was not high. This could be because they were aware of what the photos were. Seeing something over again can cause a decline in the effect that the images have on the person. Lipp et al. stated that they noticed, as the experiment went on, there was a level of sensitization that the unmasked group exhibited. This means the repeated exposure, while being conscious of the images, had an effect on the level of fear that these participants showed. Subliminal fear has an impact on our unconscious mind, but it’s debatable how much of it is our brain and how much of it is evolution.

Ohman (2009) discussed how evolution may affect fear, focusing on snakes, which are a natural fear for most people. When conducting a fear conditioning experiment, one group was shown snakes and spiders – this was known as the fear-relevant group. Another group, referred to as the fear-irrelevant group, was shown flowers and mushrooms. All these groups were shown these images concurrently with a shock. The level of fear was higher within the snake and spiders group. Ohman stated these results did not come as a surprise; they expected the snakes and spiders group to exhibit high levels of fear. Ohman et al. (1985) suggested that these fear responses in humans are due to something called the predatory defense system (as cited by Ohman, 2009).

Humans are known as predators, but even a predator can become prey. For humans, the development of fear comes from learning signs to sense possible danger. Thus, human fear could be evolutionary. In Lip et al.’s (2014) study, fear was seen to be both conscious and unconscious. Ohman’s study also suggested that evolution could be a cause for fear. Both of these studies have merit and could contribute to a revised approach that includes both concepts to better understand fear conditioning in humans.

Humans have learned and developed over time; evolution plays a role in that. The reason why humans walk, speak, and can think the way they do is attributed to evolution, but also to the way that humans learn behaviors. In Crutzen et al. (2018)’s study, they were trying to understand how evolutionary processes affect human behavior. Behavioral Change Methods (BCMs) or Techniques (BCTs) are methods that could be used to help with interventions. Evolutionary Learning Processes, such as Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, Affective Learning, and Procedural Memory, are heavily relied on by the BCMs to provide cues, reinforcement, counter-conditioning, fear arousal, and more.

The evolutionary learning process affects how people learn, and BCMs could help alter these methods. Learning is part of human development but sometimes, humans do not adopt good behaviors or their behaviors can potentially harm their well-being. As previously discussed, Lipp et al.’s (2014) study about subliminal fear conditioning relates to these two aspects as it can help explain why people learn behaviors. Evolution has played a role in development; however, it may have played an even more significant role in fear conditioning. Using BCMs can offer solutions to or teach coping mechanisms for fears, fears that people have to confront every day of their lives.

Research is lacking in fear conditioning and its relation to evolution and overall human development. As a result, understanding how evolution has influenced fear is limited. However, these three studies offer insight into the broader context of understanding how these two seemingly different subjects relate to each other. Lipp et al. (2014) conducted a study to understand how subliminal images induce fear, attributing this to the unconscious ability of the brain to process information. They revealed that people are often unaware of these fears. Ohman (2009) carried out a study on the influence of evolution on fear, suggesting that the predatory defense system instigates these fears. Crutzen et al. (2018) studied the evolutionary learning processes and behavior change methods and explored how they can be implemented in interventions. Collectively, these studies explain how humans develop fears and how these fears unconsciously control us. They also highlight the need for continued research into evolutionary learning and fear.

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Evolutionary Learning: Fear Conditioning Is The Product Of Evolutionary Learning In Humans. (2022, Aug 18). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/evolutionary-learning-fear-conditioning-is-the-product-of-evolutionary-learning-in-humans/