Fear of heights or fear of falling?

Look at this cliff.

Image Seems dangerous right?

But in reality,

Image it is just a few feet tall.

Some of you might’ve probably thought that the cliff was really dangerous and some of you might’ve not but in general, the idea of falling in the cliff made it seem higher and steeper than it really is.

In the past, I was really scared of heights. As a child, when we went to public places that included a height of more than three stories, I always panicked because I knew that my fear would disable me from going up (and sometimes, even inside) the building. Even mere escalators frightened the crap out of me. It took me a long time to get rid of my fear, thanks to a rappelling course I took a few years back. I was relieved to have been able to get over my fear of heights and be able to function normally. But the idea that a fear of heights interferes with the processing of visual information, which in this case is the height of the cliff, is really enlightening. Before, I just thought that what you see is what you get. But, a recent study indicates that a fear of heights is causing people to exaggerate the true height of places.


Wanna try? No thanks.

This is apparent in the research of Stefanucci, Gagnon, Tompkins & Bullock (2012) which demonstrated how we tend to undergo height and distance overestimation when we experience fear and imagine falling. They explored this by measuring the height and size perception of participants who stood at a short height (0.89 m) or a medium height (1.91 m) above either an empty pool or a pool filled with a bed of nails. Participants who viewed the bed of nails and imagined falling into it estimated both the height as taller and the size of the bed of nails as larger than participants who imagined falling into an empty pool. In a follow-up experiment, participants overestimated the horizontal ground distance to and across the bed of nails after being told to imagine jumping over it.

In another experiment conducted by Clerkin, Cody, Stefanucci, Proffitt & Teachman (2009), they also demonstrated this effect when they saw that participants overestimated a balcony’s height more after they imagined themselves falling (as compared to not imagining falling). This just shows that height and distance overestimation is caused by fear and images of falling!


Why is this so?

These findings suggest that fear may serve as a vulnerability factor that leads to perceptual biases when triggered by a stressor (in this case, images of falling). Thus, having a fear of heights is not enough to overestimate a distance, it just predisposes us to do so. But if you combine this fear with imaginations of dangerous acts such as falling, you now tend to have a higher cliff experience.

Thus, this finding is useful in coupling a fear of heights. When encountering high places (or seemingly high places), one needs to prevent oneself from imagining dangerous things from happening such as falling and sliding down the slope. As to avoid such imaginings, thinking of other things (such as going to one’s happy place =)) can be useful. Moreover, as what our mothers frequently advice, avoid looking down a high place as to avoid scaring yourself. In essence, the key to conquering fear is mind over matter!


True that, Sheldon!

Overall, these studies suggest that costs associated with imagined actions can influence the perception of both vertical and horizontal extents that are not inherently dangerous. So, at times, what we fear is not really that fearful but we just imagine it to be so.


Clerkin, E. M., Cody, M. W., Stefanucci, J. K., Proffitt, D. R. & Teachman, B. A. (2009). Imagery and fear influence height perception. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 3, 381–386.

Stefanucci, J. K., Gagnon, K. T. Tompkins, C. L. & Bullock, K. E. (2012). Plunging into the pool of death: Imagining a dangerous outcome influences distance perception. Perception, 41, 1, 1–11.





 by: Racquel C. Lastimoza

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