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 primary emotion evoked by concrete threats in people’s environment. The thought of 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 might. There are many types of threats that evoke fear, 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 of the other emotions in this typology: fear of embarrassment, fear of loneliness, fear of disgust, and so on.
People experiencing fear will be strongly occupied by the source of the threat and ways 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 conservative.
When the fear system is working properly, meaning that it is not set off too easily or too slowly, it functional value is obvious: it prevents us from getting into dangerous situations, or if we are already in them, it helps us get out of them. 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 are normally 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 gets increasingly afraid he might be on it.
“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 difference between them among the most often emphasized in emotion psychology. 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 information. 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 for 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 merge into one another.