Exploring fear of the unknown

By Costa Maragos Posted: July 20, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Nicholas Carleton was visiting professor at Sapienza University of Rome.
Dr. Nicholas Carleton was visiting professor at Sapienza University of Rome. Photo courtesy of Dr.Oriana Mosca

Fear of the unknown. It is the premise for any decent suspense film or novel. Let’s face it, most of us fear the unknown. Such anxieties have the potential to lead to some serious psychological disorders. Dr. Nicholas Carleton, professor of psychology at the U of R, has dared to look into this area of study. He’s been invited by Sapienza University of Rome to explore this area as a visiting professor. We spoke with Nick about his research.

What fascinates you about the fear of the unknown?

“The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – Howard Phillips Lovecraft 

When we study fear we often study fears we can identify, something we know, such as fearing a snake. Technically speaking, the fear has taken an object (i.e., the snake); but what happens when we are scared but there is no object? When we don't know, our imagination can fill that empty space with all manner of horrors, made worse by knowing there are horrors we cannot imagine because they are beyond anything we have experienced. We often hear that not knowing is the worst part, a notion best exemplified long ago by H. P. Lovecraft (1927) who said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. 

Artists use our fear of the unknown to scare and entertain us all the time through the use of dark alleys, movement at the periphery of our vision, whispers just beyond what we can hear, and boxes with uncertain content delivered to characters under threat (e.g., the movie Seven). The more we know, the less we fear, even when what we know is terrible, as exemplified by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008): “Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." So I wanted to study what happens when we don't know – and the results have led me to believe it may well be the most important fear we have.

Tell us more about the research you’re working on at the University in Rome.

I was delighted and honoured to be invited to work as a visiting professor at the University of Rome, Sapienza with Dr. Marco Lauriola. Dr. Lauriola and I are working on different ways to understand how people cope with the unknown. The work is building off of a growing body of evidence recently summarized in an article entitled, "One Fear to Rule Them All?" The article begins with a pastiche of Tolkien and suggests that, in line with Lovecraft from 1927, there is “One fear to rule them all, one fear to find them, one fear to bring them all and in the black box bind them”.

How long have you been involved in this area of research?

I have been directly and indirectly exploring how we interact with unknowns since 2007 and Dr. Lauriola has been doing similar work for quite some time. He is a renowned expert in decision making under uncertainty and in psychological measurement. He has a team of graduate students here who are conducting some extremely exciting behavioural and biological research exploring how people manage the experience of uncertainty (i.e., interact with unknowns). He and I began working together remotely in 2013 as collaborators for one of his doctoral students, now Dr. Oriana Mosca. Her work demonstrated we are able to experimentally manipulate and implicitly measure our responses to unknowns and she hopes to conduct post doctoral research at the University of Regina.

Okay, from the research so far, what are we discovering about anxieties related to this fear?

The cumulative research to date suggests that how we interact with unknowns is a critical element for understanding anxiety-related psychopathology; however, there is also growing evidence that how we interact with unknowns plays key roles in many or even most facets of the human experience-from emotions to personality to decision-making; accordingly, the better we are able to understand our interactions with unknowns, the better we can manage those interactions and therein our lives.  We may be able to improve our interactions with unknowns by recognizing that unknowns can make us uncomfortable, but we cannot always know and so we should practice coping with not knowing.

Spienza University of Rome
Sapienza University of Rome, where Dr. Carleton was a visiting professor, is the 12th oldest in the world and rated in the top 100 universities in the world according to the 2016 Center for World University Rankings. (Photo courtesy of N. Carleton)

What has this collaborative research experience been like for you so far?

While in Rome I was able to view one of the most recent experiments, which used several different measurement tools and techniques to explore how people cope with the unknown. The experimental design and the laboratory equipment are state-of-the-art and the commitment from students and professors is inspiring. We have also been interactively preparing several different journal articles for submission based on data that has been conducted through several projects over the past year.

I enjoyed giving several extended invited lectures to large audiences of undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, professorial, and health region specialists in Rome. The lectures included presentations on unknowns and uncertainty in the context of anxiety pathology, pain, trauma, measurement, and broader models of human psychology.   

Dr. Lauriola and I are planning several ongoing collaborations that include a growing number of scholars from Rome and other Italian universities. Such collaborations are very exciting and further strengthen the international network I have had the pleasure of working with over the past decade, including scholars from Australia, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UK, the US, and Italy.  

I think such collaborative works really underscore the amazing potential we all enjoy because of how connected our world has become. We are no longer limited by geography. Our only limits are at the edges of our imagination and perhaps how fast we can learn to manage our fear of the unknown.

Dr Nick Carleton is associate professor of psychology at the University of Regina. His research on fear of the unknown has been published in the peer reviewed Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Carleton’s research is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. You can view his research paper here. Open access for this publication is provided by the U of R’s President’s Publication Fund.