Why are people scared of high roller coasters, air travel, and walking on the edges of cliffs? In short, such a fear is, in the parlance of evolutionary psychology, “adaptive.”
Fear of heights is a human universal—and can easily be explained with an evolutionary approach. The evolutionary approach to psychology (see Geher, 2014) largely focuses on how basic aspects of our behavior and underlying psychology served a function in terms of allowing our ancestors to increase their ability to survive or reproduce. And such behavioral adaptations are still in place, even if the adaptation is not needed as much in modern conditions. We’re scared to be high up and on the edge. And this fear helped our ancestors avoid being high up and on the edge – and, thus, helped them live to be able to become our ancestors, passing on a disposition to this basic fear (see Menzies & Clarke, 1995).
This said, here’s a little secret about academia: So often times, we write about this stuff or that stuff—hand-waving it as obviously true—assuming everyone buys what we’re saying—and moving on. Fear of heights? Of course it’s a universal and of course you know what it is! It’s a classic example, in fact, that teachers of evolutionary psychology will give in demonstrating a behavioral adaptation.
But, as is true in life, sometimes you just have to experience some phenomenon to really get it. Yesterday for our son’s 10th birthday, we took him (with his sister and some good friends) climbing on the “world’s tallest ropes course” at the Palisades Mall here in NY. Should I join the kids? Honestly, I didn’t even think twice about it. I’m in reasonably good shape and I’m aware of the math—you can’t die on this thing because the company has major liability issues they’ve got to contend with. This is America! Your harness is connected the whole time – you’ll be fine. There is no way you’ll get hurt, etc.
Well, it turns out that this particular structure is the thing in my life that truly taught me about the fear of heights! Holy crap! Before I knew it, I was about 100’ up on the edge on this small platform—that is placed high up in between tightropes that you had to cross to get to the exit (or to anywhere). Our party (with me as “the grownup”) was fully and immediately dispersed before I even blinked, and I found myself, up on this platform, nearly shaking—thinking about doing only one thing—getting to the exit! I felt like a big chicken!
Well, as you can see by the fact that I’m typing now, I made it to the exit and survived! And my son Andrew apparently is an ace at this thing—completing every obstacle on the course—quickly and with a smile… and the rest of our little crew did alright.
But for me, it was a great teaching-related moment. I’d taught about how basic and adaptive fear of heights is since I started teaching evolutionary psychology in 1998. After my “fun” experience on this wicked-high ropes course, I now understand fear of heights at a whole other level – and yes, since I made it to the exit, I still stand by the evolutionary perspective on this one – fear of heights, a classic cross-culturally universal psychological adaptation definitely facilitates behaviors that increase the likelihood of surivival! So happy to be off that ropes course!
Oh and Happy 10th Birthday Andrew—you amaze me!
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Menzies, RG; Clarke, JC. (1995). "The etiology of acrophobia and its relationship to severity and individual response patterns". Behaviour Research and Therapy 33 (31): 499–501.