With Halloween just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about what exactly the holiday represents. Few other holidays have quite the same goofy, communal vibe that Halloween does. Between the ridiculous costumes, spooky display names on Twitter, and the return of the greatest Halloween icon of the 21st century, it’s hard not to be charmed by the way Halloween can bring everyone together in a sort of semi-ironic celebration of all things spooky.
But I think there’s something more there. While so many other holidays are rooted in positive emotions, like generosity, gratitude, or a steadfast love of trees, Halloween is focused on something darker: fear. The holiday has, of course, evolved a lot as it’s been borrowed, adapted, and re-borrowed by different people over the centuries. But in its modern incarnation, it’s a day when we readily celebrate the act of deliberately scaring each other—and ourselves.
That’s why I keep thinking about the power of fear. It’s motivated humans, for better or worse, throughout history. Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger once wrote, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
If that’s true—if fear really does play off the friction between what we see in our imaginations and what we live in reality—then how does fear affect our ability to learn new things?
Fear helps us learn quickly and remember for a long time
Throughout nature, fear is an incredibly powerful motivating force. Whether it’s fear of a predator, fear of natural disasters, or fear of starvation, animals react strongly when threatened with something that they fear, even if they’ve only had limited exposure.
This idea, that fear affects our behavior, is the basis of a behavioral concept known as “fear conditioning.” Fear conditioning is the process by which we learn that a certain stimulus leads to a certain undesirable result. Scientists have tested fear conditioning and proven its effectiveness. It’s basically the mean flipside of Pavlov teaching his dog that a ringing bell meant it was dinner time.
Fear conditioning has to be one of the major contributing factors to our continued ability to, well, stay alive. Our ancestors learned a long time ago that if you put your hand in a fire or get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, it really sucks. Sometimes it sucks so bad that you die. So whether they actually touched a fire and burned their foraging hand—or just saw someone else do it—you can bet that they probably didn’t make that mistake again.
Moreover, we learn from fear better the more directly we’re impacted by it. It’s one thing to hear a story about someone at another company who made a mistake and suffered the consequences. Intellectually, you might hear that precautionary tale and file it away in your brain as a potential learning moment. But that’s nothing compared to the visceral fear you feel coursing through your veins as soon as you realize you accidentally CC’ed the wrong person on that email.
Fear conditioning is an example of the reasoning behind our love of building eLearning that’s focused on actual behaviors. When you engage a learner with specific actions to take, rather than lecturing them on broad, abstract concepts, you activate a part of human nature that makes them want to do better.