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Fear of Heights

Fear is an obvious type of reaction to the unknown. Being exposed to a completely new experience, one has no information to fill in the blanks of the most suitable reaction, therefore, does not know how to respond to the external factors. Fear is vital to a person, as it keeps us away from the physical and emotional threats. Such psychological misbalance between the known and the unknown is what defines the fear. Albrecht (2012) defines fear as “An anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience.” However, missing knowledge about something does not necessarily produce fear in an individual but rather an unusual reaction. The question is why and Albrecht suggests that fear is nothing more than a “standardized biological reaction” (2012). According to the theory, fear is not an instinct, which is genetically transferred in the generation, as it is most commonly thought. Fear can be learnt through observation or personal experience. For instance, acrophobia is a fear of height. Of course, from the first glance, it seems logical to be afraid of height, as humans are not predisposed to fly or spend a significant period of time up above the ground. Nevertheless, in some instances, the fear of heights can become very illogical. For instance, being afraid of riding an elevator in the skyscraper or being situated on the top floors inside of a high building seem not to have any danger. Nonetheless, as it appears from the research done in this field, sometimes, it is the case.

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First of all, answering to the question why one is afraid of heights, we have to trace a logical chain between the causes of fear of heights. From the first perspective, it seems that being afraid of height is illogical. It is true, as the height by itself does not bring any threat to an individual and cannot harm in any way. Nonetheless, it is logical to be afraid of falling from a high building as it might injure an individual fatally. Therefore, what we call acrophobia does not mainly relate to the height. Acrophobia is related to the fear of being injured by the consequences of escalating the steps in a high building, standing on the edge of the roof, or just being afraid of it being trapped in the building if it will be destroyed by an earthquake, for instance.

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The article in the journal Psychology Today (2012) states that there are five basic fears, which the rest of more complex fears are derived from. Among them the fear of mutilation (fear of losing a part of the body or an organ), loss of autonomy (being afraid of paralysis, being stuck, suffocated, or trapped without the possibility of being freed), separation (fear of being abandoned, rejected, lost or lose someone, or something), ego-death (fear to lose face by humiliation, shame, disapproval, disappointment, etc.). But, acrophobia is connected to a basic fear of extinction. Also called the fear of extinction, or annihilation, it represents our inner anxiety of losing life. According to the article, all humans are afraid of dying; therefore, react in panic if their life is in danger of stopping once and for all.

The second question suggests determining the reasons how does a person become fearful. According to the research, our fears are not inherited as it was previously thought. However, our fears are learnt. There are quite a few instances what are the learning causes for being afraid. First, according to the principles of Classical Conditioning, the fear can be learnt as a reaction to stimuli, which can be evoked as a reflexive response. Just like with the experiment of Ivan Pavlov and his dog, fear can be a response to the heights. The reaction from escalating the ladder of the skyscraper can turn from neutral to fearful, depending on the association with an unconditional stimulus, such as feeling bad or disliking the atmosphere, which can turn into an unconditional response. Otherwise, fear can be associated with a conditional stimulus, such as breaking a leg, or falling down each time in a high building, which can lead to learning to respond to the heights in a fearful way. Fear, therefore, becomes a reflex to climbing the stairs or walking on the bridge.

The cognitive-social learning theory describes the learning from others type. In other words, a person can be exposed to the information about the damaging or threatening cases, which had happened under the following conditions. Therefore, a person knows that the height can be dangerous from someone else’s experience and, therefore, tries to avoid it; and when being situated on a high place feels an enormous discomfort. Differing from the operant conditioning, the extinction does not happen as easily.

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To conclude, fear of heights is an irrational fear, which is based on a rational implication of being afraid of falling, or hurting oneself, a basic fear of extinction, in other words, a fear of dying. The fear of height is not inherited genetically, but can be learnt in many ways. Operant conditioning and cognitive-social learning are the two ways of learning to fear heights. While operant conditioning teaches one to be afraid of heights by an application of conditional or unconditional stimuli, the social-cognitive learning teaches them by exposing them to the previous experience of other people. In either way, the fear of heights is learnt under specific conditions.

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