The Pyramid of Fear: Understanding What Scares You

Are you afraid of heights or spiders? Many irrational phobias and anxieties are linked to ancestral fears. Understanding them will allow you to better handle those realities that can sometimes be disabling.
The Pyramid of Fear: Understanding What Scares You
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 07 April, 2023

What are you afraid of? As a human being, you’re made of dreams, needs, desires, and infinite fears. In fact, as a species, our fears have favored our survival. However, in everyday life, this basic emotion often limits our quality of life.

For instance, some people, despite having reached adulthood, continue to fear the dark. Then, there are those of us who suffer from the most irrational phobias, such as the classic fear of spiders or heights. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that close to 60 percent of people possess irrational fears. Moreover, we don’t understand their origins particularly well.

As a matter of fact, there isn’t always a traumatic event behind a fear response. For this reason, it’s often suggested that fear may have a possible genetic component.

The anatomy of our darkest fears can be deactivated -or at least regulated- if we know them better and understand their origins. There’s an interesting theory that’s worth mentioning in this regard.

Primates share many of our fears with us, including phobias of spiders and snakes.

image to symbolize the pyramid of fear
The first thing we must understand about fears is that they’re common experiences and are inherent to the human being.

The pyramid of fear and its five layers

Today, most of our fears aren’t legitimate threats to our survival. Indeed, the fears of 21st-century men and women aren’t the same as those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In the present day, we’re usually gripped by imprecise and irrational realities.

In fact, the fears of the human being today are often manifested in anxiety disorders and phobias. According to research conducted by Harvard University (USA), young people today are increasingly suffering from social anxiety. This fear of being judged or ridiculed in public is a fairly widespread anguish between the ages of 16 and 29.

Dr. Karl Albrecht proposed an interesting model on this subject in his book, Practical Intelligence. He claims the pyramid of fear provides us with information about the origin of our fears. This helps us understand and rationalize them. As Albrecht explains, knowing where these disturbing anxieties come from makes it easier for us to control our maladaptive reactions.

Let’s break down each rung of the pyramid.

Just as Abraham Maslow defined the pyramid of human needs, it’s also possible to structure the pyramid of human fears.

1. The fear of extinction

Do you ever think of no longer being who you are? Of disappearing and no longer existing? Do you ever consider the transcendence of life and how it can lose all its meaning? It’s the kind of feeling you might experience when looking into the abyss over a cliff or into an immense ocean. More than a fear of falling, you feel overwhelmed by the endless depth which seems to have no meaning.

Non-existence is at the base of the pyramid of fears. It’s not just the fear of death, it means to stop being who you are and losing yourself. In effect, everything around you makes no sense. Linked to this fear is the fear of the dark, heights, flying, etc.

2. Fear of mutilation

There’s a natural instinct in us, as humans, that goes beyond mere survival. It involves not wanting to suffer or be physically attacked. In fact, we’re afraid of experiencing suffering in any of its forms and need to feel physically safe. Many phobias derive from this level of fear. For example, needles, snakes, spiders, crowds, the dentist, etc.

Indeed, many of our fears have the basis of not wanting our bodies to be violated through attacks, bites, aggressions of any kind, etc.

3. Fear of the loss of autonomy

Are you afraid of getting old? Terrified of falling ill? Petrified of small spaces like elevators? Scared of losing your job? We could say that, in the pyramid of fears, the biggest rung is the one that defines autonomy.

As human beings, we feel deep panic at losing our ability to function on our own and no longer feeling valid, autonomous, and free. In effect, our brains need to know that we can fend for ourselves. It’s for this reason that you might be gripped by the fear of getting stuck in an elevator or have the feeling that someone is exercising excessive control over you.

The fear of intimacy and commitment has its origin in the fear of losing autonomy.

4. The fear of separation, abandonment, or rejection

There’s an ancient fear that haunts us more than we might think. It’s the fear of being abandoned, being alone, and not being loved and accepted within relationships. This is because the human being is a social creature. As such, we’ve always been organized into small groups of people. In fact, it’s a basic need for our survival.

Therefore, feeling connected to one or several significant figures tempers your anxiety and mediates your psychological well-being. Not having this dimension triggers numerous problems.

5. Fear of ego death

Do you feel anxious if you have to make a presentation in front of others? Are you terrified of talking on the phone? Do you find it really distressing to be criticized or teased? Shame, not feeling competent in front of others, and making fools of ourselves make up the top rung of the pyramid of fears. These are attacks against the concept of the self. They’re deep wounds toward your own self-image that are extremely difficult to handle.

Woman afraid of flying symbolizing the pyramid theory of fear
A fear of flying is related to the ancestral fear of non-existence, an anguish that goes beyond the simple fear of dying.

The presence of ancestral fears

On analyzing the pyramid of fears, we discover one interesting aspect. It’s the fact that many fears that we might consider irrational, such as the fear of needles or heights, are closely related to our ancestral fears.

For example, the terror that many people experience in swimming pools or the ocean takes us back to the step of non-existence. It returns us to the anguishing sensation that a dimension endowed with depth such as water can produce in us. It’s an emptiness that surpasses us and that we can’t control.

The pyramid model of our fears is both interesting and worthwhile. After all, anxieties are faithful friends that’ll always be with us. As Woody Allen once said, “Fear is my most faithful companion, it has never tricked me into going with another.”

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Albrecht, Karl. Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense. New York: Wiley, 2007.
  • de Groot JHB, Smeets MAM. Human Fear Chemosignaling: Evidence from a Meta-Analysis. Chem Senses. 2017 Oct 1;42(8):663-673. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjx049. PMID: 28981822.
  • Jefferies P, Ungar M. Social anxiety in young people: A prevalence study in seven countries. PLoS One. 2020 Sep 17;15(9):e0239133. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239133. PMID: 32941482; PMCID: PMC7498107.
  • Zale EL, Lange KL, Fields SA, Ditre JW. The relation between pain-related fear and disability: a meta-analysis. J Pain. 2013 Oct;14(10):1019-30. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2013.05.005. Epub 2013 Jul 11. PMID: 23850095; PMCID: PMC3791167.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.