It’s no secret that a lot of people are afraid of anything they don’t understand.
Though they may not openly admit it, this fear can cause them to avoid new experiences or view them with undue suspicion.
This tendency isn’t just about being cautious; it’s a widespread human behavior that affects how we interact with the world around us.
From hesitation around new technology to unease with different cultures, fear of the unknown has tangible effects on our daily lives.
The reasons behind this fear are as varied as those who experience it, and understanding these reasons helps us to navigate our fears and, hopefully, overcome them.
The Psychology Behind Fearing What We Don’t Understand
The psychology behind fearing what we don’t understand is pretty straightforward.
When we come across something new, we don’t have a clear idea of what it is or what it could mean for us.
This uncertainty can make us feel uneasy because, deep down, we’re all looking for some sense of security.
Our brains are built to recognize patterns and stick to what we know. When something doesn’t fit into our usual patterns, it’s like an alarm goes off inside us telling us to be careful.
This can make us feel scared because we’re not sure if this new, unknown thing is a friend or a foe.
Another reason we might fear the unknown is that it makes us feel like we’re not in control. Most people like to feel like they’re in charge of what’s happening around them.
When something comes along that we can’t predict or understand, it challenges that sense of control.
We might worry about what this unknown element could change in our lives and whether those changes will be good or bad.
Without enough information to judge, we might default to fear, choosing to stay away from the unknown rather than risk the possibility of a bad outcome.
[Interesting: 7 Signs You Have a Fear of Intimacy]
Why People Fear What They Don’t Understand
Here are some of the most common reasons why people usually fear what they don’t understand:
1. Fear of the Unknown
Humans are hardwired to seek patterns and familiarity. When faced with something unfamiliar, our brain’s instinctive reaction is to be cautious.
This is a survival mechanism; historically, anything unknown could be a threat. It’s a primal response.
For instance, meeting a stranger or encountering a new animal would have required caution. Today, this translates into a fear of anything that doesn’t fit into our understanding.
The lack of information often leads to overestimation of potential danger. When we don’t understand something, we can’t predict what will happen next, and this unpredictability feels threatening.
Uncertainty can be uncomfortable. It creates a psychological discomfort, known as cognitive dissonance, where we struggle to reconcile the unknown with our existing knowledge.
And when we confront the unfamiliar, the absence of understanding can lead to the assumption that it must be complex or harmful. It’s easier to fear than to learn.
People often prefer to maintain their current worldview rather than challenge it with new information that they don’t understand.
This can lead to a kind of willful ignorance, where the fear of the unknown is a barrier to learning and growth.
2. Lack of Control
Not understanding something can make us feel like we have no control over it. Control is comforting.
When we understand our environment and the events in our lives, we have a sense of mastery and agency. This makes us feel safe.
Without understanding, we lose that sense of control, which can be very unsettling.
The feeling of helplessness is a powerful source of fear. When we’re not in control, we’re vulnerable.
This vulnerability opens us up to potential harm, whether physical, emotional, or psychological.
The unpredictability associated with not understanding can make us feel exposed to these harms.
In response to this lack of control, people might avoid what they don’t understand or react negatively towards it.
Avoidance is a coping strategy. It’s a way to regain some sense of control, even if it’s just by keeping the unknown at arm’s length.
This can limit our experiences and prevent us from learning about new things that could actually be beneficial.
3. Evolutionary Disposition to Fear
Evolution has primed humans to be wary of the unfamiliar. Our ancestors’ survival depended on caution.
Those who were too curious about unknown plants or animals may not have survived to pass on their genes. Thus, a natural aversion to the unknown can be deeply embedded in our DNA.
This instinctual fear is not easily overcome. Instincts are ingrained. For most, it’s not a simple matter of deciding not to be afraid.
Instead, it’s an automatic response that has to be consciously acknowledged and addressed, which is a process that takes both time and willpower.
Today’s environment is vastly different from that of our ancestors, yet our evolutionary fears can still apply. Modern fears have ancient roots.
Although we are less likely to encounter life-threatening unknowns on a daily basis, the instinct to fear what we do not understand persists, often manifesting in more symbolic or less tangible ways.
[Also read: 15 Things That Make Life Worth Living]
4. Cultural Conditioning
From childhood, we’re taught certain norms and beliefs. Cultural norms shape our understanding.
What is unfamiliar often falls outside these norms, and thus, becomes a source of discomfort.
It’s not just about what we’re told is right or wrong; it’s about the deep-seated values that come from our community and upbringing.
When we encounter ideas or practices that our culture hasn’t prepared us for, it can cause a sense of dissonance. Our culture acts as a lens.
This dissonance arises because we view everything through a cultural lens, and what doesn’t fit naturally feels out of place or even threatening.
It’s challenging to accept or understand things that we have been implicitly or explicitly taught to reject or fear.
Moreover, cultural conditioning often happens subconsciously. We absorb without realizing. We may not even be aware of why we fear what we don’t understand; it’s an ingrained response.
Overcoming this innate bias requires effort and awareness, which many may not be willing or able to invest. Thus, the fear persists, rooted in cultural underpinnings.
5. Past Experiences
Personal experiences shape our reactions. Our history informs our present.
If someone has had a negative experience with something they didn’t understand, they’re likely to develop a fear towards similar unfamiliar situations.
It’s a protective mechanism, avoiding what once caused discomfort or harm.
These experiences don’t have to be firsthand. Stories can be powerful. Hearing about negative experiences from others can also inform our views.
If a friend has had a bad experience with something we don’t understand, we might develop a secondhand apprehension towards it.
Conversely, a lack of experience can also breed fear. We rely on our experiences to guide us. When we haven’t had the opportunity to learn about something, it remains foreign and potentially frightening.
This is especially true in our rapidly changing world, where new technologies and ideas emerge constantly, outpacing our ability to personally experience and understand them all.
6. Emotional Reactions Over Rational Thinking
Emotions often override logic. We feel before we think. When confronted with the unknown, our immediate reaction is emotional.
Fear is an emotion that can quickly overshadow our ability to approach something rationally and seek to understand it.
Emotional reactions are quick and powerful. They’re hard to control. This is because they’re part of our evolutionary makeup, designed to protect us from harm.
They kick in before our slower, more deliberate rational thinking has a chance to take over.
So even when there’s a logical explanation or no real threat, our emotional response can still be one of fear.
Working through these emotions to a place of understanding takes time and effort. It’s a process. Not everyone is willing or able to put in the necessary work to move past their initial fear.
As a result, the emotional response can become a long-standing reaction to anything that isn’t immediately understood.
7. Social Influence
The fear of the unknown is often reinforced by social influence. We are social creatures. When people around us react with fear or distrust towards something, it can be contagious.
If society deems something as dangerous or negative, individuals may adopt the same attitude without firsthand knowledge.
Media representations can amplify these fears. The media shapes our perceptions.
Often, what we don’t understand is sensationalized in news reports or depicted as dangerous in movies and television.
This can skew our understanding and reinforce the fear of anything outside our realm of knowledge.
Peer pressure also plays a significant role. It’s hard to go against the grain.
If our social group sees a lack of understanding as a weakness or a source of fear, we might be discouraged from seeking knowledge or expressing curiosity about the unknown.
This pressure can stifle our desire to learn and maintain the cycle of fear.
To stop fearing the unknown, it’s helpful to learn as much as you can about it. When something is mysterious or unfamiliar, it can seem scarier than it actually is.
But once you start to gather information and understand it better, that fear often starts to fade.
You can read about it, talk to experts, or even just chat with someone who knows a bit more than you do. Knowledge really is power when it comes to tackling fear.
Another way to beat this fear is to get hands-on experience. For example, if you’re afraid of using new technology, trying it out in a low-pressure situation can help a lot.
The more you practice, the more comfortable you become, and slowly, that scary unknown thing becomes a familiar part of your life.
It’s like the first time you try riding a bike—it might be scary at first, but with time, it just becomes second nature.