Phobia Origin Stories: Narrative Truth Versus Historical Truth

Phobia Origin Stories: Narrative Truth Versus Historical Truth

Posted Jun 04, 2010

I have a fear of flying. I am nonetheless writing this while crammed into an airplane seat (I'll edit later while on the solid ground). My fear has at times been relatively severe. My heart rate can double during take-off: Aerobic exercise without any physical exertion. I can also tell you a story of how my fear began. But how can I know if my story is the true explanation of my fear?

My story? I remember a very bad flight I took as a young man. Shortly after take-off, the plane made a quick and extreme dive to the right. The stewardess fell. Everyone gasped. I assumed that we would pull out of the dive quickly - we didn't. I thought we were going to crash and that I was going to die. I hope it's obvious that eventually we pulled out of the dive. The rest of the flight was incredibly inconsistent, as if the plane's engines could only be run at full strength or not at all. I was never able to calm down during that flight. Ever since that flight, I've had a fear of flying. Even just going to the airport can be anxiety provoking.

My story explains my fear. My fear response is at its worst during take-off. I really don't appreciate sharp turns when climbing either. My pulse can jump from its resting rate of 60 bpm to over 120 bpm (like the academic geek I am, I wanted to see just how bad my fear was, so I counted). Once we reach cruising altitude, I calm down. I enjoy landing, although intellectually I know that landing is relatively risky. My story not only explains my fear, but also why my fear is particularly bad during take-offs.

Just because my story makes sense of my fear, does not guarantee that the narrative is true. A few years ago, Elaine Kheriaty, Ron Kleinknecht, and I investigated the accuracy of phobia onset memories. First we started with people who had extreme fears and phobias (more severe issues than my fear of flying). We asked them to describe the onset of their fears. Like many other researchers, we found that a substantial minority (around 25%) could not recall the genesis of their phobias. Like other researchers, we also found that the phobia onset memories indicated a variety of pathways of phobia acquisition, including: classical conditioning (such as my bad flight story), observational learning, and informational pathways.

Then we did something different - we tried to verify the accuracy of what the individuals told us. With their permission, we mailed questionnaires to their parents asking about their adult child's acquisition of a ‘perfectly normal childhood fear.' You always want to tell parents that it is fine for their child to have a fear and that it isn't unusual. We first asked the parents to report what they knew of their child's fear acquisition. Then we asked parents to open an envelope containing their child's explanation and to evaluate that story.

In most cases, parents stated that their child's memory matched their own regarding the fear onset. In about 25% of the cases, however, the parents reported a different, and generally earlier, causal event. In essence, the child recalled an event that might have happened, that was related to the fear, but that was most likely not the causal event. Something earlier was likely the cause.

People have narratives about their fears and phobias. These narratives make sense of the fears. The narratives are not necessarily the actual cause. In a wonderful book, Donald Spence wrote an important argument concerning the difference between narrative truth and historical truth. If that is my story, then it is my truth about the event - whether or not it matches the historical event that occurred.

I have complete confidence in my memory of my bad flight. It is, after all, my memory, my narrative truth. It feels real to me and seems to be the cause of my fear of flying. This doesn't mean it is actually the true cause of my fear. I know, for example, that I'm generally uncomfortable with heights. There may be other earlier events related to my fear that I don't recall. Those other events may be the real cause. My narrative may just be an interesting story I tell when teaching about classical conditioning.