In Understanding and Overcoming Fear, sociologist Margee Kerr, PhD, explains the physiological and contextual aspects of fear, revealing the complexities of this powerful emotion and explaining why you can never experience the exact same fear twice. In 24 exciting episodes, Professor Kerr takes you on a journey similar to the one she has taken in her own work—from considering fear as a toxic, destructive force that needs to be defeated to an emotion with tremendous upsides in the right circumstances.
Understanding and Overcoming Fear
Margee Kerr is a sociologist and author. She earned her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches and conducts research on fear. Specifically, she examines how and why people engage in scary experiences like haunted attractions, horror movies, and paranormal investigations. Findings from her research offer insight into how people manage stress and what positive gains can result from challenging fears.
Margee is a regular presenter and public speaker at events such as TEDxFoggyBottom and conferences hosted by organizations such as the Society for Affective Science and The Franklin Institute, where she speaks on topics related to fear and dark tourism. She also serves as a consultant for attractions and museums, including the International Spy Museum and Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, where she advises on how to create engaging, informative, and entertaining content regarding the science of fear.
Margee is the author of SCREAM: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear and coauthor of OUCH! Why Pain Hurts, and Why It Doesn’t Have To (with Linda Rodriguez McRobbie). Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Parade, The Atlantic, NPR’s Science Friday, and The Guardian.
01: What Is Fear?
Discover the biological aspects of fear shared by all humans in our central and peripheral nervous systems. But even with those commonalities, each of us responds to fear a bit differently—as illustrated by your professor’s somewhat harrowing experience on EdgeWalk at the CN Tower in Chicago.
02: Why Do People Want to Be Scared?
Each fall, people pay their hard-earned money for the privilege of being “scared to death” in haunted houses. In fact, all types of horror-themed recreation are on the rise. Why is that? Discover the many factors that affect how we interpret that feeling of “fun-scary,” and you might be surprised to learn what brainwave activity reveals about the experience.
03: How We Sense Fear
How can we understand fear now that scientists have moved beyond the outdated notion that our emotions are discrete, innate experiences written into our DNA? Explore how the more modern theory of constructed emotion explains fear, and why you will never experience the exact same fear twice.
04: Understanding Specific Phobias
Millions of Americans experience an excessive or even debilitating fear of objects or situations that most people don’t find frightening at all. Explore the many subtypes of phobias—from a pathological fear of specific animals to weather—how they affect mental and physical health, and the most effective treatments.
05: How We Learn to Fear
Is it possible that our sense of the world is generated in our own minds, as opposed to our sense of the world resulting from what we experience? Absolutely. We are always running an internal model of the world just milliseconds ahead of our conscious awareness. Explore what happens when our predicted world and the real world just don’t match up. Creepy dolls, clown faces, and robots, anyone?
06: Why We Feel Afraid: The Science of Emotion
Why do we scream with delight on a rollercoaster—and keep coming back for more—when that experience puts our physical systems into the fight, flight, or threat mode? Learn about the body’s predictive systems and what happens to them when we choose to run straight toward that rollercoaster or haunted house.
07: The Function and Meaning of the Scary Story
Whether you love them or hate them, scary stories always pack a punch. Why are these types of stories particularly well-suited to help us make sense of the unknown? How do they help us share critical cautionary warnings about our biggest threats and how do they transmit culture? Learn how a terrifying story really can help us feel calmer.
08: Monster as Metaphor
The word “monster” comes from the Latin root meaning “to warn.” What do the monsters of our literature and entertainment warn us about? Discover how Godzilla, Frankenstein’s monster, and the 20th century’s fictional serial killers reflect the people and cultures from which they were born, while warning of the destruction that can come when we step outside the boundaries of civilized society.
09: Fear of Criminal and Deviant Behavior
How do we decide which people, places, and things threaten us and cause us fear? Is that process always logical? Discover why some sociologists believe deviant behavior actually helps keep the society together. After all, if we couldn’t label some behaviors and terrifyingly reprehensible and definitely “not us,” how could be sure which behaviors are “us”?
10: Fear of Confinement
You may never have used the term “total institutions,” but chances are they’ve played a role in almost every scary story you’ve ever heard. These are the institutions that are specifically designed to isolate people, usually against their will. Explore why we both fear these institutions and flock to some of them in droves as the most popular tourist attractions around today.
11: Fear of Crowds
We have reason to fear a crowd of people that seems to suddenly erupt into chaotic panic; we all have heard stories of people being trampled to death. But what was really happening in that crowd? Discover whether a panicked crowd tends to be the cause or result of a disaster and how crowd collapse can be avoided.
12: Facing Fears as a Nation
National threats play a key role in our biggest fears. Learn what earlier Americans feared on a daily basis and how our national fears have changed over the decades. And discover how the experiences of our military men and women have greatly influenced our scientific understanding of fear itself.
13: Fears for Our Kids
Could our children today be “too soft?” Are parents today overprotective or not protective enough? Explore how parenting attitudes about fear have evolved over the last century, and what research has revealed about the fears, anxieties, and well-being of children today.
14: How Avoiding Risk Can Increase Fear
Americans are safer today from many forms of violent crime than they ever have been. And yet, people feel their families are at greater risk of violent harm. Explore the roles played by each of the following in this dilemma—the insurance industry, revision in tort law, and the burgeoning industry of risk management.
15: Fear of Cybercrime
On the internet, we’re never really sure we have enough security, and that vulnerability leads to fear. In fact, polls show that people fear cybercrime over violent crime by a three-to-one margin. Learn about the legal mechanisms that have been put in place to curb that vulnerability and what experts say we need to do to calm those fears.
16: Fear of Pandemics
While we often want to avoid fear, the truth is, fear is a great motivator that can provoke people to join together and fight when the fight is warranted. Explore the use of language in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Was that a good time to use calming language to quell public fear? Would public fear have led to panic or to appropriate protective measures?
17: Fear of Climate Change
You’ve heard about climate change for years, but you might be surprised to learn just how widespread American fears about climate change really are. Explore this new “eco-anxiety” that mental health professionals are treating, and what people are, and are not, doing to protect themselves from the threat.
18: Fear of Corrupt Government Officials
When trust is broken, fear can arise. Using the infamous corruption of Boss Tweed as an example, explore the many ways in which former government officials lost that trust and stoked fear. But, as you will see, Americans are also hopeful and resilient, with the vast majority believing that trust in government can be improved.
19: Fear of the Supernatural
Why is it that belief, fear, and supernatural engagement are all on the rise while Americans report one of their biggest fears to be fear of the supernatural? Explore what neuroscientists and other professionals say about the supernatural and what could cause people to believe they have experienced an otherworldly encounter.
20: How Society Shapes Our Fears of Death and Dying
For centuries, the sick and dying remained in their homes surrounded by friends and family, and death was a familiar part of life. Today, we have removed that familiarity with death from our daily lives and tend to see it only when it occurs suddenly or traumatically. Explore how that shift happened over time and its consequences, including how it changed our fear of death.
21: Confronting Our Own Mortality
Each of us will eventually confront one absolute fact—we are mortal. Some psychologists believe this knowledge naturally leads to terror. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Discover how our awareness of our own mortality can be channeled into actions that can lead to a more fulfilling, productive life, and into emotions other than fear.
22: Understanding Trauma and Fear
Just over half of Americans will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. Most people will not have lifelong effects from such an intensely terrifying experience, but some will. Explore the factors that influence our responses to frightening experiences—from the influence of genes, how we form memories, how in touch we are with our bodies, and more.
23: Managing Fear with Mindfulness
At some point, we are all going to have the “most” terrifying experience of our lives. You might assume the results of that experience would necessarily be negative, but that certainly doesn’t have to be the case. Explore the factors that affect how an individual responds to trauma, including interoceptive awareness, and the possibility of posttraumatic growth.
24: Using Fear to Fight Fear
Social anxiety disorder—a persistent and intense fear of being negatively judged in social situations—is one of the most common mental health challenges in the United States. Many treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy, have been proven effective, but all have limitations. Discover “fun-scary” therapy—and why the initial data shows this unusual-sounding approach could be so beneficial.