Fear or fear?

I wrote recently about how people tend to use the same words—and sometimes concepts—for ‘want’ as in ‘yearn for’ and ‘want’ as in ‘intend’. As in, ‘It’s so lovely here I want to stay forever’, yet ‘I want leave before midnight, because otherwise I will miss my train’. And the trouble this causes.

I think we do something similar with fear. ‘I’m concerned that X’ can mean ‘I feel fear about the possibility of X’ or it can mean ‘I think X (which would be bad) might be true’. I’m not sure which words naturally distinguish these two different messages, but whatever they are, I don’t seem to use them. For instance, what would avoid ambiguity in this sentence? ‘I ……………. that not enough people are going to vote’. I can think of several ways to fill the slot: worry, fear, am concerned, am scared, am frightened, am anxious. But I think they can either be used in both ways, or suggest a more specific kind of feeling.

The ambiguity of these words is especially noticeable if one has unusual levels of anxiety (for instance because of an anxiety disorder, or I suppose because a relaxation disorder). If you try to express a different one to that which people expect, it becomes clear that interpreting such a statement relies on on context. If you are known to usually be anxious, and you say ‘I fear our shoe rack is not large enough for all of our shoes’ you will be misunderstood to mean ‘my heart is pounding and I can’t breathe or think because of this shoe rack’ when you might be more accurately interpreted as, ‘I feel no emotions about the shoe rack, but may I draw your attention to a problem with it?’.

I don’t know if this causes problems, like the ‘want’ case. It is almost the opposite—you are mixing up ‘I have an urge to avoid this thing’ with ‘I judge there to be a problem here’. So you might expect it to go wrong in an analogous way: we feel fear regarding things, and then jump to expensively avoiding them without taking the other stakes into consideration.

It is certainly true that people behave in this way sometimes. For instance, once I was putting a golden necklace on in a dark car, and when I touched my hands to my neck I found a giant hairy spider on it. I jumped to expensively avoiding the spider in every sense, and did not find the necklace again. My mistake was neglecting to take into account the value of the necklace to me alongside my aversion to having a spider on my neck. I think there are more drawn out examples too. However I am not sure I have ever seen someone behave in this way due to confusion in the use of concepts, whereas with ‘want’ I think I have.

I wonder if more generally people often just use the same words for both ‘I have emotion Y about X’ and ‘my considered attitude toward X is the same as the one I might have if I had emotion Y’.  ‘I regret…’, ‘I’m sorry…’, ‘I hope’, and ‘I trust’, seem arguably like this too, but I’m not sure about others.

As I said before, I’m inclined to infer from the fact that people don’t really have good language to distinguish two things that they haven’t historically distinguished the things much. In this case for instance, I suppose that people have mostly treated feeling fear as identical to having the considered position that a thing is risky. This sort of thing would make sense in the design of a creature whose emotions basically track all of the relevant considerations. Or at least as many relevant considerations as any other part of its brain might usefully track. My guess is that we used to be much more like this for various reasons, and now are less so.

In the case of fear, perhaps we used to be in situations where our natural terror regarding aggressive animals for instance directed us well, whereas now we just tend to be too scared of snakes and sharks and not scared enough about heart disease or cars. At the same time, our intellectual faculties have grown into elaborate science and technology that can usefully track things like heart disease and build things like cars.

I have long thought that people often almost accidentally take their feelings to be their considered positions, without having an extra step of considering them. I take this as a bit more evidence, but it is also possible that my earlier theory just made this kind of  observation stand out, and there are lots of observations in the world to observe.

4 responses to “Fear or fear?

  1. My guess is that the use of “fear” to mean mere prediction of bad things comes from a metaphorical extension of the word for the affective fear response, since that typically coincides with anticipating bad things.

  2. I think the ambiguity between the two senses is deliberate in this case.

    Yes, sometimes we use “I’m concerned that X” to merely mean “X is a possibility/likelihood” but usually that phrasing is adopted when we want to convey “X isn’t improbable and I want to acknowledge it is bad/disturbing/etc…”

    For instance in a (infamous) argument I had with my wife early in our relationship she took my vociferous argument about the presumption of innocence in date rape allegations to imply that I didn’t think it was a big deal if date rapists got away with it*. Had I been aware of this potential misinterpretation I would have said something like, “I’m concerned that all a date rapist must do is offer a plausible consensual story” to signal that while that fact justified my argument it was a very unfortunate one.

    Given this usage the ambiguity with actual fear is intended. My wife actually feared that the law didn’t sufficiently deter date rape so to signal that I wasn’t dismissing that fear it is most effective to use the same language I would use if I was personally (as opposed to merely morally) afraid of the same thing.

    I don’t think this is just an isolated anecdote. Consider Hanson’s point about the social taboo of predicting that discrimination will increase in the future (or any other socially undesirable thing). Many people will take the fact that you are suggesting something is likely (especially in the future) to imply that you think it is good (or at least not bad). Hence to deflect such implications one adopts the same language one would use to signal a fear.


    *: Luckily in the real world this doesn’t mean it is easy to get away with date rape. Given the ability to raise credibility evidence, e.g., incompatible accounts texted/told to friends, and evidence that the story was unlikely the adversarial process can usually produce sufficient information to warrant convicting the guilty clearly even in date rape cases. My actual point was slightly different.

  3. A shorter version would be:

    People adopt language that is ambiguous between two interpratations because context usually lets the listener infer the true intent while the ambiguity lets the speaker signal the emotional/value judgement/etc.. implicit in the other usage. This seems to be an instance of this phenomena.

  4. I’ve read this and your last post with interest, and then realised that I speak Spanish, which does somehow distinguish between the two types of “I want” (“quiero quedarme aquí” and “querría quedarme aquí”). As for the blank, I would fill it with “I am concerned that…”.


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