The Nature of Fear: Why We're All Afraid of Something

An interview with Daniel Blumstein about his groundbreaking new book.

Posted Sep 08, 2020

In the early 1980s, when I was teaching courses in animal behavior and behavioral ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder, an undergraduate walked into my office and proudly announced, "I want to be an ethologist." It was UCLA's Dan Blumstein, who has gone on to a stellar career studying many different aspects of animal behavior. 

I've closely followed his outstanding wide-ranging and clever research, and eagerly awaited the arrival of his new book, The Nature of Fear: Survival Lessons from the WildI wasn't let down, and I'm thrilled Dan agreed to answer a few questions about this eclectic work that contains insights for "scientists, students, policymakers, and every human being navigating their way through our sometimes frightening world.” Here's what he had to say. 

Why did you write The Nature of Fear?

I’m very much interested in interdisciplinary insights and I realized that there are many lessons from my studies of antipredator behavior that have implications for how we humans make decisions. Unlike traditional evolutionary psychologists, I gain insights from the full tapestry of life—or as my friends and colleagues Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers might say—from looking far left to the ancestors of our more immediate ancestors. For instance, it’s generally true in all of life that it’s really costly to overreact to threats. And if we take the broad view, we see that individuals that get their risk assessments right leave descendants while those that don’t, don’t. Thus, we are descended from a line of successful ancestors who got their risk assessments right. 

 Harvard University Press, used with permission
Source: Harvard University Press, used with permission

I’ve been involved in a number of interdisciplinary working groups where we sought to make connections between fields. For instance, the field of evolutionary medicine takes lessons from ecology and evolution to improve human health. The field of conservation behavior brings insights from more academic studies of behavior to wildlife conservation and management. And colleagues and I created a field of "natural security" where we took insights from ecology, evolution and behavior and applied them to national security and defense. Once you get thinking broadly, you realize that there are all sorts of biologically-inspired insights to be shared. And, I’ve wished to share these insights that I’ve gained over the years with a more popular audience. In addition to this book, I write OpEds and other essays and have recently started blogging with Psychology Today.

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I am a behavioral biologist and conservation scientist. I have spent over 35 years studying antipredator and social behavior of many species in the wild. My students and I have studied antipredator behavior in giant clams and fishes, skinks and lizards, as well as in many species of birds and mammals. I’ve studied antipredator behavior in some species-marmots and wallabies-in a lot more depth. I run one of the longest studies of free-living mammals in the world—the yellow-bellied marmots studied at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. Studying animals in detail and studying a lot of different species gives me both deep and broad insights. I find the application of these insights to other fields is a huge and exciting intellectual challenge.

Who is your intended audience?

The book is a popular science book. I hope that its accessible and educational and will stimulate readers to think more about how and why we make the sorts of decisions we make. And, importantly, I hope it will give people insights on how to make "better" decisions and not be overtly influenced by fearful messaging from politicians! As a conservation scientist and environmental educator, I hope readers will be as awed as I am by the sheer diversity of cool things animals do and that this knowledge can be translated to better care for life on Earth. Finally, I hope younger readers will learn about the academic study of behavior and find a variety of role models around the world to emulate should they want to pursue this field professionally.

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of your major messages?  

I use the lens of antipredator behavior to understand how animals make decisions. I blend personal experiences, collected from over 35 years of fieldwork studying anti-predator and social behavior in animals and humans around the world, with recent scientific discoveries. I explore the myriad ways in which organisms avoid getting killed by predators, and the effects predators have on their behavior, their morphology, and the ecological communities in which they live.

I begin by defining fear and anxiety and by describing the flight-or-fight response and discuss the neurophysiological mechanisms that modulate anxiety and fear. These are ancestral and very adaptive responses but they may have different consequences in today’s world. We need to understand how and why we evolved to respond to fearful situations to properly understand why we act as we do today. I then devote the next three chapters to summarizing what’s known about how visual, acoustic, and olfactory stimuli (sights, sounds and smells!) scare animals and potentially us. 

One of the main lessons from life is that context influences and should influence the response to threats. I discuss the sorts of locations with increased predation risk, how these areas may vary by species, and some of the factors that influence decisions about whether or not to use these habitats. It becomes quite clear that it is impossible to completely avoid risk and the logic of the trade-offs that animals and humans face every day in their quest to survive and leave descendants. Armed with this knowledge we can understand human aesthetics for certain landscapes.

I introduce the economic logic of behavioral ecology and use the huge literature on flight initiation distance in animals—the distance you can approach an animal before it begins to move away―to understand the dynamics of risk assessment. These lessons have important implications for ecotourism since animals respond fearfully to us as they respond to predators. By understanding the economics of fear we gain more insights into the trade-offs animals (and humans) make on a daily basis that enable them (and us) to live another day.

I also discuss the conditions under which animals should learn about their predators, the ways in which they do, and the implications of being able to learn about predators for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as wildlife conservation and management. I discuss habituation—a process by which animals (and humans) may reduce fearful responses to things that are not threats—and suggest that there may be general principles underlying what we habituate to. 

I then discuss why humans tasked with assessing the risk of fearful events, will benefit from seeking information from all those who share similar risks and illustrate this with lessons from peacocks, dik-diks (a small, monogamous African ungulate), monkeys, meerkats, and the marmots I have studied for much of my career.

Darwin may have been the first to recognize the ecological effects of predators not only on their prey, but on what their prey eat. I describe such trophic cascades in my Colorado study site as well as in Yellowstone, out-back Australia, and on Islands off Vancouver Island, Canada. Predators have a myriad of effects on their ecosystems, and the world is a very different place because of the fear exerted by large carnivores. 

Folk wisdom is often contradictory and this is no better illustrated than by the phrases “nothing ventured, nothing gained” and "better safe than sorry.” How can we make sense of such contradictory advice and when should each of these rules apply? I introduce the logic of error management theory that emphasizes the importance of minimizing long-term costs.

Instilling fear in voters can change the outcome of political elections, but it’s not always successful in changing human behavior. Why? I show how fear and anxiety have been both successfully and unsuccessfully manipulated to change human behavior, and the conditions under which fear may be an effective agent of change, and when it will not be an effective agent of change.

I end with a distillation of 15 lessons on how we can make better decisions when facing a risky and uncertain world. 

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics? 

My book differs in its explicit interdisciplinary focus where I aim to link the lessons that the diversity of life has to offer to help us better understand decision making in a risky and uncertain world. 

What are some of your current projects?

Too many to list.1

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Only that you, Marc, have been an ever-present and very important mentor to me throughout my career. You taught me that you can have fun while studying animal behavior and highlighted the importance of respecting the animals we study. You also introduced me to the then-controversial field of cognitive ethology as well as a foundational introduction to more philosophical issues associated with the study of animals, including welfare. And, you taught me to respect and support students. Much of my work is conducted with trainees and I try to inspire and support them as much as I can. So, thanks Marc, it’s a real honor to be interviewed by you here!



1) A few that I’m really excited about include my work with Katherine Moseby and Mike Letnic and other colleagues in Australia where we are trying to improve antipredator behavior of threatened and endangered species to improve the success of conservation reintroductions. You can learn about this in a review paper titled "In situ predator conditioning of naive prey prior to reintroduction." And, I’m quite excited about our marmot work which is focusing more and more on aging and senescence. This doesn’t mean I’m no longer studying anti-predator behavior—far from it. My students and I continue to study antipredator behavior of a variety of animals (including marmots and the bilbies and bettongs I work with in Australia). I’ve got a really fun collaboration with Kate Lynch, a philosopher, where we explore how insights from the field of Effective Altruism can help improve conservation biology and biodiversity management. Finally, I’m the founding Chief Editor of a new journal―Frontiers in Conservation Science―which I’m hoping will create an effective bridge between practitioners and academics and publish highly interdisciplinary conservation science so that we can further improve conservation and biodiversity management outcomes.