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Fear

The Surprising Emotion Evoked by Bullies and Abusers

Fear is secondary to surprise or startle evoked by bullies and abusers.

Key points

  • Surprise and startle are often triggered by unexpected situations, including abuse and bullying.
  • Surprise and startle interrupt us and clear our consciousness to direct attention to whatever triggered the emotion.
  • As an interpersonal strategy, abusers and those who bully employ surprise-startle to evoke uncertainty and fear in others.

With surprise or startle, our eyes widen and blink, our eyebrows are up, our mouth opens, our body may twitch or lurch, and our hand may reach to cover our cheek, forehead, or chest. The emotion has a sudden onset and a quick offset and ends attention to whatever you were doing. It’s a system reset. Surprise, along with its more intense presentation as startle, is considered a “neutral” emotion in that it has a range of intensity (high or low) and valence (pleasant or unpleasant). Since it only lasts a second, we often look to see what comes next. Will it be positive or negative? We often assume these emotions are activated by an unanticipated positive event or circumstance, like an unexpected party given in our honor or from hearing the punchline of a funny joke. Yet surprise and startle are often triggered by unexpected situations, including abuse and bullying.

The evolutionary function of surprise-startle is to protect us. Consider a time when you were surprised or startled—perhaps a person or animal suddenly appears on the road in front of you as you were driving, or as you are watching a movie you hear an explosion outside. Surprise-startle has a unique quality as an emotion; namely, that it interrupts whatever is happening, and clears our consciousness in order to rapidly direct our attention to whatever triggered it (Tomkins, 2008). The surprise-startle response readies us to focus on the stimulus that triggered it so that we can instantaneously prepare ourselves to adapt to a new situation. Basically, the emotion jolts us into attention and clears our minds of whatever else we may have been thinking or feeling. Thus, we become focused upon whatever surprised or startled us and then become aware of the emotions that follow, such as fear, distress, shame, anger, or disgust.

Why is surprise an initial and central emotion felt by a victim of abuse or bullying? We generally assume fear is the basic emotional experience of bullying and abuse victims. However, their fear is often preceded by surprise or startle. When a bully attacks a victim, the victim is often caught off guard and surprised. Then the potential victim becomes fearful. Similarly, a person who is physically and emotionally abused is initially startled by the behavior of someone in their life who lashes out at them. And those who live with someone whose rage is intermittent are repeatedly startled when it happens. As an interpersonal strategy, abusers and those who bully employ surprise-startle to evoke uncertainty and fear in others. They may do so by showing sudden intense anger, by performing risky or daring acts, by behaving unpredictably, and by displaying callous toughness when the other person experiences distress and fear (Mosher & Tomkins, 1988).

The evolutionary function of emotion involves protection and adaptation to our environment. Nevertheless, modern humans have found various ways to use the surprise-startle emotion as entertainment by activating it in situations resulting in enjoyment, such as humor, rather than fear or other negative emotions. Even so, not everyone responds to a surprise party with the thrill of excitement. In fact, I know one situation where the recipient of a surprise party was initially shocked and then became so ashamed and angry that he walked out the door.

More recently, marketers and advertisers have made use of the surprise-startle expression, as though one should stop any other thought and feeling and attend to an amazing product or significant event. Billboards, magazines, and television ads regularly feature deceptive emotional expressions of surprise-startle where people have wide-open mouths and eyes. Although we are not fooled by ads, even though we may be inclined to mimic the surprise-startle expression, we are indeed surprised or startled by bullies and abusers.

References

Mosher, D. & Tomkins, S. S. (1988). Scripting the macho man: Hypermasculine socialization and enculturation,” Journal of Sex Research, 25, 60-84.

Tomkins, S. S. (2008). Affect Imagery Consciousness. Springer

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