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.