The feeling when you encounter or think about a thing or person that can harm you. You have the urge to avoid or get away from the threat.

Fear is the emotion that is evoked by concrete threats in a person’s environment1. A fast-approaching car, a spider crawling on one’s arm, or the possibility of being robbed can all evoke fear in a person. Fear is characterized by its orientation to the future: the emotion is always about things that have not happened yet, but may soon happen2. Fear can be evoked by many types of threats3, including the threat of getting hurt (e.g., being afraid to get a shock from an electrical appliance), financial or material loss (e.g., being afraid to damage an expensive artwork), making a faux-pas (e.g., being afraid to say the wrong thing), losing a friendship (e.g., being afraid to confront a friend with his behavior), and hurting others (e.g., being afraid when handling a baby). In a sense, fear is elicited by the possibility of getting into a situation that evokes any other negative emotions: fear of embarrassment, fear of loneliness, fear of disgust, and so on.

People who experience fear will be highly preoccupied with the source of the threat and with means to escape or avoid it. For immediate and physical threats, this may involve pulling one’s hands away, or stepping back. When faced with social threats (e.g., losing one’s job), people become more cautious and conservative4.

When a person’s fear system is working properly, meaning that it is not triggered too quickly or too slowly, its functional value is clear: it prevents us from getting into dangerous situations, or, if we are already in such a situation, it helps us to get out of it. However, people with phobias (e.g., Alektorophobia: fear of chickens, or Geliophobia: fear of laughter) have a dysfunctional amount of fear for certain stimuli that would normally be seen as unthreatening.

In the comic, Murphy is listening to his boss reading the names of people who are being laid off. As the alphabetical list approaches his name, he becomes increasingly afraid that he might be on it.

Movie clips


Typical expressions


“No! Stay away from me!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Fear & Anxiety

The words fear and anxiety are often used interchangeably in everyday language. They both deal with uncertain events in the future, and they both put the person experiencing them in a state of readiness to deal with the threat. However, the differences between them are among the most frequently emphasized in emotion psychology3. The most important difference is what kind of threat they are responding to. Fear is evoked by concrete, immediate, and usually sudden threats (like a fast-approaching car), whereas anxiety is evoked by uncertainty of potential, unidentified threats (such as the possibility to catch a nasty disease). In case of fear, the body has a clear way to react – getting away from the threat. In case of anxiety, however, there is not a clear threat, so there is nothing to get away from. Instead, people become very vigilant and scan the surroundings for more information5. Because these differences are crucial for survival, the two types of threat-responses have different pathways in the brain.

Fear & Startle

Startle can seem like the more abrupt cousin of fear. Both are about concrete events that may be detrimental to your wellbeing in the near future. Although both deal with concrete events, an important difference is that in fear we already understand what the threat is. When you are startled, you are still finding out exactly what is happening and what it may mean to you. Because of this, the fear response is often to flee or hide, while the reaction to startle is to find out what is going on (in order to respond more appropriately immediately afterwards). Thus, if the startle is justified, it may well switch to fear.

Fear & Distress

On paper, distress and fear are relatively simple to distinguish: you feel fear if you see a threat that may harm you, when you feel distress, the threat is already harming you. In practice it can sometimes be more difficult to set them apart. For example, imagine you are running away from a wild animal. At first the animal is at a distance behind you, and you feel fear for the possibility that it will catch you. As the animal gets closer and closer, the chance that this will happen grows, and your fear will increasingly transform into distress. There is not one point where you are only feeling fear, and another where you are just feeling distress. Rather, these two emotions organically transition into one another.

Sources and further reading