Monday, April 26, 2010

Fear of Knives: Exploring the Roots

(*This article is the more developed and elaborated version of my original post last week, Why We Fear Knives? in which I was exploring one of the questions that was put to me for my Yondan thesis. This article is split into two parts. Please read both and if you have comments, post them in the second article, Getting in Touch with Our Own Knife Psychology.)

The knife is a deadly weapon and people are naturally going to fear an attack with a knife more than one with no weapon involved. There is room to posit theories that humans may psychologically fear knives more than other deadly attacks like guns, bludgeoning weapons or even multiple attackers. Many scientists believe that evolution has produced natural fears in the human psyche which evolved to help protect us from things that would cause us harm (i.e. fear of snakes, spiders, heights, etc). Research shows that mammals in general have developed the perceptive ability to focus on things seen as threatening, such as snakes and spiders, and to respond emotionally with a feeling of fear. (See reference article.)

It’s not a stretch to suggest that humans might have a latent fear of knives which could easily be associated with other natural cutting weapons that go way back in our evolutionary experience, like the teeth and claws of predators that once threatened us. Guns, bludgeoning weapons, even swords, don’t have the long history of being a life threat that small cutting weapons have in our evolutionary background. That being said, Richard McNally, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stated: "The biggest challenge that we face in considering these theories of evolution is we cannot recover the evolutionary history—there is no fossil record," he said. "People seem to have different thresholds for saying what is a plausible account of evolution."

Even if we don’t subscribe to the evolution theory, we can consider our own experiences. Pretty much everyone has been cut at least once in their lives even if it was just a simple a paper cut. They can actually remember what it feels like to be cut. The memory of that pain could theoretically cause a visceral fear reaction in people when they are threatened with a knife. Most people have never been shot so it does not evoke the same intensity of response when a gun is pointed at them.

What we see and read about in popular media may have an effect on how we perceive knives, whether the perception is accurate or not. When you see people cut with knives on TV or movies, they usually feature a close-up of the victim’s face showing him in extreme pain. When people are shot, on the other hand, the pain isn’t as prominent. Usually the victim just drops to the ground or goes flying back from the impact. To go further with the point of how knives are depicted in movies, the most horrible serial killers in movies are usually depicted as being hackers and slashers. All of this could theoretically contribute to a stronger emotional reaction to a knife.

As children, many people are exposed to toy weapons, most often guns and swords. This familiarization at a young age could theoretically make a person less fearful as an adult. You don’t usually hear about kids playing with toy knives on the other hand so one could surmise that the lack of familiarity in that way leads to a greater level of fear.

No comments: