Irrational Fear: It’s Just an Alief
I have always said that there is a fine line between intelligence and fear. Some fear is adaptive and entirely reasonable: particularly when the catalyst truly involves danger. There are some anxieties however, that take hold and profoundly affect behavior in unreasonable ways.
One personal example comes to mind to illustrate this. Last winter I was backpacking on a trail that traversed some rock city formations with deep, but relatively narrow, crevasses. Many of the cracks were unintimidating and easily traversed. There was one however, that stopped me in my tracks. The gap was 36-40 inches across a sheer 25 foot drop. Under more typical circumstances, this gap would have not phased me. Yet, in this situation, I was completely frozen.
To be clear there was some risk associated with this crossing. But, in my mind, the risk took on unreasonable proportions.
Frankly, I was both embarrassed and befuddled by this situation. Were it a stream of equal width, I would have easily hopped over it.
I stood there at battle with myself for what seemed like an eternity. In reality, it was probably only a minute or two. My body was hostage to a cognitive tug-of-war between my rational brain urging me to leap. “Come-on” I uttered to myself “It’s only three feet across!” “You can do this!”
Another force in my brain countered with incapacitating doubt. Kevin, my backpacking companion, patiently waited on the other side of the crevasse after easily leaping across. I saw him do it with no difficulty. I had clear evidence that the crossing was easily within my capabilities; but, the cost of a slip and a fall, far overshadowed my confidence. The frustration I felt over this coup of sorts, was immense. Finally, I was able to muster up enough confidence to take the leap. It was, in fact, quite easy. We hiked on and no further mention of this humbling pause was made.
Many fears are like this. Whether it is a fear of mice, or bees, spiders, or snakes. These stimuli impose, in most circumstances, no grave threat, but the flight response they trigger in the phobic is immense. Even when a person knows that there is no reason for fear, it persists.
This response is akin to the reluctance that most people have about eating chocolate fudge in the shape of dog feces, or eating soup from a clean unused bedpan, or drinking juice from a glass in which a sterile cockroach has been dipped. Psychologist Paul Rozin, in his famous studies on disgust, discovered that when presented with these circumstances, most people choose not to eat the fudge or the soup, or drink from the glass – even knowing there is no real danger in doing so. It is the irrational essence of contagion that drives these inhibitions.
These situations are all very different than rock climbing without ropes, where there is clear and present danger. When we are compelled to flee a truly benign stimulus, we are likely driven by an internal cognitive force that screams “RISK!” even when there is no true danger. Intriguing isn’t it, that this innate force is so powerful that even our capacity to use reason and evidence pales in comparison.
Philosopher Tamar Gendler has coined the word “alief” to describe this cognitive phenomenon. She fashioned the word around the word “belief,” which is a conscious manifestation of how we suppose things to be. An alief is a deep and powerful feeling of sorts that can and does play an important role in decision-making, but it is not based in reason or evidence. Beliefs can be more susceptible to such rational forces. But aliefs defy reason and exert powerful influence despite one’s attempts to rationally dispel them. This voice is intuitive and its origins are outside your awareness. They typically appear in an attempt to facilitate self-preservation.
You may believe that the feces shaped fudge is “JUST FUDGE!” but it is your alief that the fudge is excrement (as a result of it’s characteristic size, shape, and color) that makes it very hard to eat. I believed that hopping over the crevasse was easily within my capabilities, but it was my “alief” that - leaping over the gap is DANGEROUS - that kept me frozen in my tracks.
You see, you can simultaneously hold opposing beliefs and aliefs and it was, in fact, these opposing forces that waged war as I stood at the edge of the precipice. You might believe that a bee is generally harmless and unlikely to sting you unless you threaten it. But, it is your alief, that the bee will sting and hurt you that triggers the autonomic arousal that compels you to flee. It is this deeply primal alief that often wins, no matter how rational you attempt to be.
In my situation, my belief in my leaping ability ultimately prevailed. Perhaps this was due to my machismo or humiliation, but ultimately I fought down and defeated the alief. It was a hard fought battle that left me feeling like a chicken despite my “victory.”
In retrospect, getting an understanding of this internal process has helped me come to grips with my hesitation. And as such, I stand in awe of the internal brain systems that play out in such circumstances.
Perhaps in the future, when in a similar situation, I will be better prepared to deal with self doubt as it springs forth from my lizard brain so that I will more effectively cope with it before it builds incapacitating momentum. After all – it’s just an alief!