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Keywords:

  • Emotion;
  • Fear;
  • Animal phobia;
  • Social phobia;
  • Evolutionary analysis;
  • Biological preparedness;
  • Automatic and controlled information processing;
  • Pavlovian conditioning;
  • Backward masking;
  • Skin conductance;
  • Heart rate

ABSTRACT

This paper applies a functional-evolutionary perspective to fear in the context of encounters with animals and threatening humans. It is argued that animal fear originates in a predatory defense system whose function is to allow animals to avoid and escape predators. Animal stimuli are postulated to be differentially prepared to become learned elicitors of fear within this system. Social fears are viewed as originating in a dominance/submissiveness system. The function of submissiveness is to avert attacks from dominating conspecifics. Signs of dominance paired with aversive outcomes provide for learning fear to specific individuals. Data which in general are interpreted as supportive of this conceptualization are reviewed. To explain the mechanism behind the causal relationships suggested in the evolutionary analysis, an information-processing model is presented and empirically tested. It is argued that responses to evolutionary fear-relevant stimuli can elicit the physiological concomitants of fear after only a very quick, “unconsciousness,’ or preattentive stimulus analysis. Support for this notion is presented from backward masking studies where it is demonstrated that conditioned autonomic responses to fear-relevant stimuli can be elicited even with masked stimuli.