How People Deal With Being Threatened and Scared


Everyone dreams of blissful existence. One where peace and calmness prevail and troubles are manageable. In reality, man is barraged with conflicts and problems. Every day, life’s complexities pose challenges to a person’s coping and survival skills. A person comes up with several responses when faced with an adverse situation – some are trivial, some spell the difference between success and failure in a task, some even the difference between life and death. It is interesting to study the process a person goes through when he is threatened. It is reflective of his thinking, attitude, his background, how he was raised, his value system, and many others that pertain to him as a person.

A myriad of theories has been derived from Psychology to explain how people deal with fear or threatening situations. The work of Skinner, Maslow & Erikson, among others, have thoroughly explored constructs related to people’s innate responses and manifested behaviors of fear. They have analyzed it from various perspectives – a person’s needs, motivations, reinforcements. This paper discusses and dissects the three theories proposed by these three prominent psychologists.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s Theories

Skinner has been made immortal with his theories of behaviorism. He has studied the behavior of animals using reinforcement and punishment and manipulated the intervals of its provision. He states:

“Whenever we present a state of affairs which is known to be reinforcing at a given drive, we must suppose that conditioning takes place, even though we have paid no attention to the behavior of the organism in making the presentation” (Skinner, 1992, p. 273).

Using rats and pigeons, he determined the conditioned behavior with the rate and intervals of reinforcement that the shorter the intervals between reinforcement (like food), the faster and more marked the conditioning (Skinner, 1992).

His theories, although tested on animals, have been tried out on humans. Skinner tried it out with his own daughter, Debbie as he put her in a “Skinner box” Zimmer (1999). He had so much belief in his theories that he even found fault in Pavlov’s, who, he claimed he truly admired when he was a student at Harvard (Skinner, 1996). He cautioned:

“A careful analysis of contingencies of reinforcement in both operant and respondent behavior seems to be an absolutely essential first step. It is not a question of differences, in theory, it is a matter of reaching a formulation that fits the known facts. This is a task to which Pavlov if he were alive today, would devote himself with his characteristic enthusiasm” (Skinner, 1996 p. 257).

Skinner’s idealism in pursuing a perfect world was expressed in his book, Walden Two. It is about a community that is isolated from the world and is governed by positive reinforcement. From the time the citizens of Walden Two are children, they have been conditioned to like to do the approved techniques. Such positive reinforcement a behavioral and cultural technology is built. Freedom was never an issue since people are conditioned to want to do that which is best for themselves and the community (Skinner, 1948).

Skinner explained the idea of Stimulus-Response formulation and reflex from a perspective of certainty. Simply stated, if the stimulus occurred, the response was certain. “The reflex is important in the description of behavior because it is by definition a statement of the necessity of this relationship” (Skinner, 1931/1999, p. 495). If the relationship is very strong and borne out of necessity, then the response that follows the stimulus is certain. Skinner was convinced that the concept of reflex pervaded the whole field of psychology. (Skinner, 1979/1984).

The lead character in Walden Two explained the beginnings of Skinner’s influential theory in the book. “To build up perseverative behavior,

Frazier said, ‘A bit of a tune from a music box, or a pattern of flashing lights, is arranged to follow an appropriate response’ (p. 124) and When he behaves as we want him to behave, we simply create a situation he likes or removes one he doesn’t like. As a result, the probability that he will behave that way again goes up, which is what we want. Technically it’s called ‘positive reinforcement.’’” (pp. 259-260).

Walden Two was deemed to be a step-up of Thoreau’s 1854 Walden which was considered only “Utopia” for one. Skinner’s version called for social justice and human well-being more than mere individualism advocated by Walden. Walden Two called for a science and its technology of behavior (Altus & Morris, 2004). Skinner (1976) indicated that the choice was clear: it was either one becomes passive and allow a miserable and possibly dreadful future to come and take over or use one’s knowledge about human behavior proactively to create a social environment that allows people to live harmoniously, living productive and creative lives without jeopardizing the chances that the future generations will be able to do the same.

Walden Two emphasizes Skinner’s vision for attaining individual and community health, wealth, and wisdom to require balancing an individual’s ability to achieve such goals purposefully, consciously, and freely with the community’s support and promise to ensure its survival (Altus & Morris, 2004). His greatest legacy to the utopian genre was the use of empirical methods to ascertain which particular premises and practices were effective.

The two ways that these methods were applied were their use in assessing and evaluating the community’s practices to allow the community to discover and select those that ensured the health, wealth, and wisdom of every member to maximize their current freedom. The other way was to use the empirical method to assess and evaluate the community’s premises such as the nature and culture of the members to allow the community to discover and choose those that ensured health, wealth, and wisdom as a culture and to maximize its long-term survival (Altus & Morris, 2004)

Critics have been keen on the control of behavior utilized by Skinner, dismissing purpose, mind, and freedom. Without those things, social justice has no foundation. The practices endorsed in Walden Two were presumed to engage behavioral engineering and mind manipulation (Matson, 1971) and are alleged that these were dictated by Skinner and his science. The utopian vision of Skinner was viewed to have the possibility to “change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined” (Jessup, 1948, p. 192).

Altus and Morris (2004) argue

“Behavior is already controlled, some of it humanizing, some of it dehumanizing. Skinner sought to eradicate the latter – coercive and aversive control – by understanding it well enough through science to control it and then replace it with positive forms of control that promoted social justice and human well-being.” (p.271)

Later on, Skinner shed some of the positivism in Walden Two with changes that were more in line with his growing selection (Moxley, 2006). However, his disciples in behaviorism did not abandon all the excesses of positivism that some critics have been concerned that behavior analysis had evolved into a quasi-religion (Moxley, 2006).

His more philosophical beliefs on man were eloquently written in his controversial book, Beyond Freedom & Dignity (1971). It is in his writings here that he expressed how man responds to negative emotions. Positive reinforcers such as praise, good reputation, etc. are a strong motivator for behavior, and when taken away from an individual can be aversive for him, making him respond in appropriate ways such as escaping from those who deprive them of such positive reinforcers, or attack in order to weaken the depriver’s effectiveness (Skinner, 1971).

What the person feels when he protests against the person, or situation that deprives him of the positive reinforcer is resentment, or as Skinner more aptly calls “the expression of indignant displeasure”, however, he argues that the individual does not protest because he feels resentful, but both protest and feel resentful because he has been deprived of the chance to be admired or receive credit (Skinner, 1971).

“We are concerned here with that part of the literature of dignity which protests encroachment on personal worth. A person protests (and incidentally feels indignant) when he is unnecessarily jostled, tripped or pushed around, forced to work with the wrong tools, tricked into behaving foolishly with joke-shop novelties, or forced to behave in demeaning ways, as in a jail or concentration camp.

He protests and resents the addition of any unnecessary control. We offend him by offering to pay for services he has performed as a favor because we imply a lesser generosity or goodwill on his part. A student protests when we tell him an answer he already knows because we destroy the credit he would have been given for knowing it. To give devout person proof of the existence of God is to destroy his claim to pure faith”. (Skinner, 1971, p.. 55)

This implies that our held beliefs about things and everything associated with it become threatened. Skinner explains that our beliefs are built when we increase the probability of action by reinforcing the behavior. However when we give verbal assurances on something that the individual does not actually question, demonstrate its integrity or give more specific descriptions, then we challenge those beliefs.

Further, he connotes that changes in preference, perceptions, needs, purposes, attitudes, opinions and other attributes of mind may work in the same way, that another individual has the power to change how a person looks at something as well as what he sees when he looks, by changing contingencies (Skinner, 1971). This control of behavior, when non-aversive, seems to preserve the freedom and dignity of autonomous man, and to those who use it may defend themselves against the possible charge that they are attempting to manipulate behavior and they are excused when things go wrong. On the other extreme, “Control is more obvious when growth or development is prevented. Censorship blocks access to the material added for development in a given direction; it closes opportunities” (Skinner, 1971, p. 88).

Skinner contended that advances in physical and biological technology may have threatened the worth or dignity of man because it may have reduced his chances to earn credit or be admired. This contention may cause conflicts between the literature of dignity with the literature of freedom. Freedom favors a reduction in aversive features of daily life, thus would encourage inventions that make life more convenient, however, a concern for personal worth usually triumphs over freedom from aversive stimulation (Skinner, 1971). Skinner best expresses it as thus:

“A scientific conception seems demeaning because nothing is eventually left for which autonomous man can take credit. And as for admiration in the sense of wonderment, the behavior we admire is the behavior we cannot yet explain. Science naturally seeks a fuller explanation of that behavior; its goal is the destruction of mystery. The defenders of dignity will protest, but in doing so they postpone an achievement for which, in traditional terms, man would receive the greatest credit and for which he would be most admired” (p. 58).

If there is one thing Skinner wants to pass on to the field of Psychology, it is the use of empirical methods as a way of pursuing truth and a better alternative to what is in existence. He exhorted, “Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment” (Skinner, 1979, p. 346).

Abraham Harold Maslow’s Theories

Of the three theorists studied, Maslow’s theories directly explore man’s reaction to dangers and threats. Of the needs mentioned in Maslow’s motivation theory, the need for safety is given more emphasis for this paper.

According to Maslow (1970), a person goes through his life motivated by his needs.

“The therapist has been forced to differentiate more basic from less basic wishes (or needs, or impulses) It is just as simple as this, the frustration of some needs produces pathology, the frustration of other needs do not These troublemaker needs are inconceivably stubborn and recalcitrant As Freud pointed out, they resist all blandishments, substitutions, bribes, and alternatives, nothing will do for them but their proper gratifications” (Maslow, 1954, p. 327).

Maslow has come up with a hierarchy of needs that must be satisfied in a person’s lifetime, and that as one’s more basic need is fulfilled, he moves on to a higher one. Chronologically, the hierarchy of needs is as follows: physiological needs; safety needs; belongingness and love needs; esteem needs and need for self-actualization.

Physiological Needs

The starting point of his motivation theory is a person’s physiological drives. Hunger is a drive common to man and animals, and it prompts him to behave in ways to fulfill this basic need. Maslow claims that of all the needs, the physiological need stands out as the strongest one. Once hunger is satisfied, higher needs emerge, and this takes the place of the motivator that dominates the individual.

This goes on and on, as one climbs higher and higher in the hierarchy of needs. Maslow notes that gratification of needs becomes as important as deprivation in his motivation theory since it frees the organism from the domination of a more physiological need, and thus allowing the emergence of other more social goals. “The physiological needs, along with their partial goals, when chronically gratified cease to exist as active determinants or organizers of behavior” (Maslow, 1970, p. 38)

Safety Needs

The new set of needs that emerge upon the gratification of physiological needs are the safety needs for security, stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear, anxiety, and chaos as well as the need for structure, order, law, limits, strength in the protector and so on. Infants and children do not inhibit their responses to threat or danger so they project a clearer manifestation of fear. Adults, on the other hand, have been programmed by society to inhibit it, as a more civilized way of dealing with the threat. Thus, even if adults feel that they are endangered, it is not obvious on the surface level (Maslow, 1970).

Hence, it is easier to study the need for safety with children. They manifest a preference for a predictable, lawful, orderly world, and any inconsistency that disrupts their constant rhythm makes a child feel anxious and unsafe. Children find security in what is routinary to them. In it, they are secured that unexpected, unmanageable, chaotic or other dangerous things will not happen to them, and they can count on their reliable and powerful parents to protect them from harm.

This emphasizes the role of parents in their children’s sense of security. If the home environment provided for children is characterized by disruptions to a child’s peace – quarreling family members, physical assault, separation, divorce, or death, it can be terrifying for children (Maslow, 1970).

“Parental outbursts of rage or threats of punishment directed to the child, calling him names, speaking to him harshly, handling him roughly, or actual physical punishment sometimes elicits such total panic and terror that we must assume more is involved than the physical pain alone. While it is true that in some children this terror may represent also a fear of loss of parental love, it can also occur in completely rejected children, who seem to cling to the hating parents more for sheer safety and protection than because of hope of love” (Maslow, 1970, p. 40).

Applied to adults, a healthy and fortunate adult is pictured as one who is greatly satisfied in his safety needs. This is largely credited to a peaceful and stable society that makes its members feel unthreatened by “wild animals, extremes of temperature, criminal assault, murder, chaos, tyranny and so on” (Maslow, 1970, p. 41). On the other hand, an unhealthy, neurotic individual is a grown-up who has retained his childish attitudes towards the world and behaviors in response to threats to his safety.

Maslow’s example is an adult’s behavior likened to his childhood fear of “spanking, his mother’s disapproval, or of being abandoned by his parents, or having his food taken from him. It is as if his childish attitudes of fear and threat reaction to a dangerous world had gone underground, and untouched by the growing up and learning process were now ready to be called out by any stimulus that would make a child feel endangered and threatened” (Maslow, 1970, p.42).

Belongingness and Love Needs

Once both physiological and safety needs are met, an individual now experiences a great need for love, affection, and belongingness. His goal now is to establish connections to other human beings, hungering for affectionate relationships with people in general and a place in his own group or family.

“He will want to attain such a place more than anything else in the world and may even forget that once when he was hungry, he sneered at love as unreal or unnecessary or unimportant. Now he will feel sharply the pangs of loneliness, of ostracism, of rejection, of friendlessness, or rootlessness” (Maslow, 1970, p. 43).

Cases of maladjustment and pathology mostly find their roots in the thwarting of such love and belongingness needs. Maslow also differentiates love from sex, as sex is a purely physiological need. However, this may not be delineated when the sexual behavior is multi-determined (Maslow, 1970).

Esteem Needs

Next in the hierarchy of needs is esteem needs. It is but natural for people to desire healthy self-respect or self-esteem along with the high regard others accord them. Maslow classifies these esteem needs into two subsidiary sets: first, the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery and competence, confidence, independence, and freedom. Second is the desire for reputation or prestige, status, fame, and glory, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, dignity, or appreciation. When these needs are gratified, it brings to the individual feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, being a useful contributor to the world. Thwarting these needs produces feelings of inferiority, weakness, and helplessness (Maslow, 1970).

Need for Self-Actualization

The highest need that an individual can have is that of self-actualization. The term was first coined by Kurt Goldstein, “it refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially” (Maslow, p. 46) Simply put, a person must do what he has been designed to do, what his talents and potentials have molded him to be. Maslow eloquently says, “What a man can be, he must be. He must be true to his own nature” (Maslow, p. 46). An individual will desire to be better at what he does well, usually where his gifts lie. The emergence of this self-actualization need rests upon prior ratification of the physiological, safety, love, and esteem needs (Maslow, 1970).

Frustration & Deprivation

Frustration and deprivation are two concepts directly related to needs and desires. Frustration is not getting what one desires, or the blockage of the granting of a wish or gratification. On the other hand, deprivation is likewise being unable to satisfy the need, but in addition, it is a threat to the personality, life goals, defensive system, self-esteem, self-actualization of an individual. Maslow contends that only a threatening deprivation has the multitude of effects commonly attributed to frustration in general (Maslow, 1970).

Maslow contends that a balance of respect for both the cultural and the biological factors surrounding the individual is necessary. Culture may be a stronger force than instinctive needs and thus, much weaker, subtle, and tender instinctive needs should be protected that these are not overpowered by culture rather than the other way about. “This could be so even though these same instinctive needs are in another sense “strong,” i. e., they persist, they demand gratification, their frustration produces highly pathological consequences, etc.” (Maslow, 1954, p.331).

Conflict and Threat

The conflict has been known to man since time immemorial, and it comes in different forms and degrees – from simple decisions to be made between opposing choices to more threatening conflicts that can endanger one’s being. Two types of conflict situations exist. One is threatening and the other is not. Non-threatening conflicts are not important since they are not ordinarily pathogenic, or cause much psychological stress in an individual. Threatening types become important due to their pathogenic effect on the organism (Maslow, 1970).

Threatening conflicts involve a choice reaction. One is forced to choose to give up something as equally important as what was chosen. This is threatening even after the choice has been made, since the choice may have thwarted a basic need (Maslow, 1970).

Catastrophic conflict is a “pure threat with no alternative possibilities of choice. All the choices are equally catastrophic or threatening in their effects or else there is only one possibility and this is a catastrophic threat” (Maslow, 1970, p.108). An example is the coming of death. Such an event can strip an individual of his self-confidence due to the fact that he cannot do anything about it and has no control over the situation. This includes nuclear aspects of threat such as direct deprivation or thwarting or danger to the basic needs – “humiliation, rejection, isolation, loss of prestige, loss of strength – these are all directly threatening. In addition, misuse or non-use of the capacities threatens self-actualization directly” (Maslow, 1970, p. 111).

Coping and Expression

Maslow (1949) has differentiated reactions to non-gratification of needs that lead to frustration. An individual may react by expressing this frustration or coping with it. Coping is conscious, learned, purposive, and motivated, and expression is often unconscious, unlearned, unmotivated. Coping is more determined by environmental and cultural variables while expression is largely determined by the state of the organism.

Coping is more easily controlled. It is usually designed to cause changes in the environment while expression is not. “Coping is characteristically means behavior, the end being need-gratification or threat-reduction. Expression is often an end-in-itself” (p. 262).

The state of an individual is seen through his expression of his frustration. Cursing, for one reflects such state. According to Maslow (1949), it is not coping behavior in the ordinary sense of being done in order to gratify a basic need, however satisfying it may be in another sense. This, and all such release behaviors (yelling, hitting, etc.) may be a way to keep the individual more comfortable by keeping his tension-level down by allowing an uncompleted act to be completed (ex. yelling to get others’ attention so they give in to what he wants); by “draining off accumulations of hostility, anxiety, excitement, joy, ecstasy, love or other tension-producing emotions by allowing consummatory motor expression” (p. 265); or permitting a simple activity for its own sake, with the kind the individual usually indulges in.

Erik Homburger Erikson’s Theories

Erikson was another prominent psychologist who built on Freud’s theories and parallelized his own Psychosocial growth theory with Freud’s Psychosexual growth stages. However, he extended his theories beyond childhood and covered the whole lifespan. He presents human growth “from the point of view of conflicts, inner and outer, which the vital personality weathers re-emerging from each crisis with an increased sense of inner unity, with an increase of good judgment, and an increase in the capacity “to do well” according to his own standards and to the standards of those who are significant to him” (Erikson, 1968, p. 92).

Erikson agrees with Marie Jahoda’s definition of a “healthy” personality in an adult. He is one who “actively masters his environment, shows a certain unity of personality and is able to perceive the world and himself correctly” (Erikson, 1968, p. 92). These characteristics shall emerge depending on how the individual developed cognitively and socially from childhood.

The individual’s growth throughout his lifetime is fraught with conflicts and crises. At each life stage, there emerges a dilemma that the person struggles with. Crisis, in Eriksonian terms, does not connote a threat of catastrophe but a crucial turning point of “increased vulnerability and heightened potential, and therefore, the ontogenetic source of generational strength and maladjustment” (Erikson, 1968, p. 96). At these turning points an individual may either resolve the conflict or fail to master the developmental task. Whatever comes out of it is the result of choices made at each stage.

As a way to deal with a child’s upbringing, Erikson claims that people all over the world have the tendency to introduce to the child the senses of shame, doubt, guilt and fear. These build up the crises the child undergoes in each life stage. However, such conflicts are seen as important because the individual needs to resolve them unceasingly to remain psychologically alive (Erikson, 1959). Thus, his ego integrity is sustained. According to Erikson (1959), this implies “an emotional integration which permits participation by followership as well as acceptance of the responsibility of leadership; both must be learned and practiced in religion and in politics, in the economic order and in technology, in aristocratic living, and in the arts and sciences” (p. 99).

Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages are briefly described as follows:

Basic Trust vs. Basic Mistrust

Parallel to Freud’s Oral Stage of Psychosexual development, in this first stage of Psychosocial development, infants learn to trust the significant people around them that provide them their basic physical and emotional needs. On the other hand, if these needs are not met, then an attitude of mistrust towards interpersonal relationships develops (Erikson, 1963).

Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt

Toddlers are at a stage when many developmental milestones occur. Consistent with Freud’s Anal stage, this second stage of psychosexual development is the time when autonomy or self-reliance is being developed as toddlers become more mobile in their explorations and limit-testing exploits. Body control is also a prevailing issue since toilet training commences at the stage. “To develop autonomy, a firmly developed and convincingly continued stage of early trust is necessary” (1959, p. 68)

Initiative vs. Guilt

Having developed more skills, a child exhibits competence in some tasks more than before. He craves for freedom to make choices to have a positive view o self and follow through on his projects. Not being allowed to make their own decisions makes them develop guilt over taking initiative. Hence, the tendency is to take a passive stance and let others choose for them (Erikson, 1963).

Industry vs. Inferiority

School aged children juggle multiple tasks to meet their goals: expansion of understanding of the world, development of appropriate gender-role identity and learning basic skills required for school success. Their task is to achieve a sense of industry. Their failure to setting and attaining personal goals in these areas results in a sense of inferiority or inadequacy (Erikson, 1963).

Identity vs. Identity Diffusion

Adolescence, being the time of transition between childhood and adulthood becomes a challenging time of testing limits, gaining more independence and establishing a new identity. There surfaces the need to clarify self-identity, life goals and life’s meaning, and failure to achieve a sense of identity results in role confusion (Erikson, 1963)

Intimacy vs. Distantiation vs. Self-Absorption

The developmental task of young adults is to form intimate relationships by seeking their lifetime mates through romantic relationships of very close friendships that form strong emotional bonds. However, when intimacy is not achieved, alienation and isolation take place (Erikson, 1963).

Generativity vs. Stagnation

Adults in the mid-life stage have a strong urge to leave a legacy by helping the new generation. They become very productive as they adjust the discrepancy between one’s dream and one’s actual accomplishments. Failure to achieve a sense of productivity results in psychological stagnation (Erikson, 1963).

Integrity vs. Despair and Disgust

Late adulthood is a time when ego integrity over one’s lifetime is evaluated. If one looks back at the live he has lived with few regrets, then ego integrity is achieved. On the other hand, failure to achieve ego integrity leads to feelings of despair, hopelessness, guilt, resentment and self-rejection (Erikson, 1963).

Erikson admits that in unearthing more learning about the development and growth of the individual and about his motivations, it has likewise opened our eyes to the dangers of the world and it is difficult to relax one’s caution. He, himself has pointed to more dangers than to constructive avenues of action and turns around by suggesting that he hopes it is an indication that we are progressing through one stage of learning (Erikson, 1959).

A word of assurance is given as his conclusion: “If we will only learn to let live, the plan for growth is all there” (Erikson, 1959, p. 100).

Analysis of Theories and Contributions

The foregoing discussion has shed light on how three prominent theorists explain how man deals with fear or threat. Skinner emphasized the significance of positive reinforcers, and depriving an individual of such is seen as a threat to his personal worth and dignity. Maslow explained how the thwarting of needs of man results in unimaginable fear of the threat to his survival. Erikson, moving along his discussion of conflicts all throughout man’s lifetime walked us through the lifespan and how dilemmas at certain stages in serve as painful opportunities of growth.

Skinner believes that an individual lives for positive reinforcement. Being comfortable in his state is positive reinforcement. Anything that would take away that comfort would be seen as a threat to the homeostasis he is enjoying, and so he becomes indignant. From the literature, it has been shown that when an individual is questioned with the way he has been thinking, believing, living, etc., it triggers him to either avoid the source that questions him or fully attack the questioner, seeing him as a threat to remove him from whatever comfortable state he is in.

People may react in various ways and varying degrees to fear or threat – from a nonchalant shrug of the shoulder to mask what emergent fear he is feeling inside to a catastrophic breakdown, disorganized behavior or deep hopelessness. Some reactions may have physiological repercussions such migraines or constipation (i.e. the child who withholds his feces as an act of unconscious hostility to an annoying mother), loss of appetite or speech in apathy, for good muscular tone in good health or for jumpiness in the emotionally insecure person (Skinner, 1949).

In Walden Two, Skinner envisioned a society living in peace and harmony as a result of behavior manipulation. Citizens of Walden Two have been conditioned to follow the premises and practices of Walden Two being ingrained in their minds that the community is out to ensure their health, wealth and wisdom. Thus, if anything out of the context of community practices or premises is introduced, there is great possibility that it will be considered a threat and would elicit fearful reactions.

Maslow’s very sensible explanation of how people are threatened when their needs are unmet further illuminates the concept of need gratification or else it may result in neurosis or any other pathological consequences. This refers to the most nuclear aspects of threat, namely the direct deprivation, or thwarting or danger to the basic needs – humiliation, rejection, isolation, loss of prestige, loss of strength, and misuse or nonuse of the capacities threatens self-actualization directly (Maslow, 1971).

“A deprivation that is at the same time a threat to the personality, that is, to the life goals of the individual, to his defensive system, to his self-esteem, to his self-actualization, i.e., to his basic needs. It is our contention that only a threatening deprivation has the multitude of effects (usually undesirable) that are commonly attributed to frustration in general (Maslow, 1970, pp.105-106).

Erikson’s psychosocial theory showcases what an individual is up against at every stage of his development. One tendency is for a person to go to either extreme in the continuum and whatever results from that may leave an indelible mark in the person’s life. How a person copes in a particular dilemma may affect his psychosocial development. It reflects how he would deal with conflict and resolve it.

It is but natural for man to be indifferent to new things that would take him out of the routine he has been accustomed to. Skinner refers to new modifications as new culture being introduced to man. He describes man’s reaction to it as thus:

“Another kind of opposition to a new cultural design can be put this way: “I wouldn’t like it” or in translation, “The culture would be aversive and would not reinforce me in the manner to which I am accustomed.” The word reform is in bad odor, for it is usually associated with the destruction of reinforcers – “the Puritans have cut down the maypoles and the hobbyhorse is forgot” – but the design of a new culture is necessarily a kind of reform, and it almost necessarily means a change of reinforcers. To eliminate a threat, for example, is to eliminate the thrill of escape; in a better world no one will “pluck this flower, safety … out of this nettle, danger”. The reinforcing value of rest, relaxation and leisure is necessarily weakened as labor is made less compulsive. A world in which there is no need for moral struggle will offer none of the reinforcement of a successful outcome” (Skinner, 1971, p. 163).

This statement emphasizes man’s need for threat and struggle in order to move towards something better instead of remaining complacent in the status quo.

Introduction of a totally new culture which completely breaks away from the past culture an individual is accustomed to is impossible, as the designer of the new culture will always be bound to the culture he has grown up in, and in some ways still be influenced by the past culture. To some extent, he will design a world he likes, and this new culture must be able to appeal to those who he thinks should move into it. These people are necessarily products of an older culture (Skinner, 1971).

To illustrate in a more concrete manner how the theories of the psychologists discussed come to play in an individual’s coping with fear or threat, the scenario of being introduced to a new technology is used. Erikson argues:

“Social inequality and backwardness of method still create a hazardous gap between many children and the technology which needs them not only so that they may serve technological aims, but, more imperatively, so that technology may serve humanity.” (Erikson, 1968).

It can be intimidating to be suddenly faced with a new system of technology that is supposed to make life easier for an individual. In an organisation that intends to implement a new software system, there can be a lot of excitement that may be generated by the news, however, much fear and resistance may be palpable as well. Psychologically, technology can pose problems for staff feeling threatened and insecure of being dispensable, and easily replaced by the new innovation (Jones & O’Shea, 2004). This is mostly appeased by effective training. Human resources strategy and practice is central to the successful staff development.

The introduction of something unfamiliar threatens the comfortable pace and routine of what people are accustomed to. In Skinnerian theory, it takes away the positive reinforcement of predictability. That explains why some workers may find the news of the introduction of the new system as aversive. The natural resistance to change is manifested out of the uneasiness of being plucked out of one’s comfort zone.

Maslow’s theories on the hierarchy of needs also come into play. The new system can be a threat to people’s job security because as mentioned earlier, they will think it will be a possible replacement for human workforce. The new system can also be a threat to self-esteem because of the fear that it will be a much more efficient system than they can ever be as workers in the organisation.

This self esteem is tied up to Erikson’s definition which is related to ego identity. According to him (1959) ego identity is the “inner capital accrued form all those experiences of each successive stage, when successful identification led to a successful alignment of the individual’s basic drives wit his endowment and his opportunities” (p. 89, italics original). If conflicts are not resolved in any stage, then, it would affect his self esteem.

Such self esteem is strengthened or crushed at the end of each major crisis and grows to be a “conviction that one is learning effective steps toward a tangible future, that one is developing a defined personality within a social reality which one understands” (p. 89). In the case of the introduction of a new system, an individual’s self esteem is affected in the mastery of his experience, and such mastery should be aligned with how other people around him recognize and view such mastery. If his competence does not match the new system’s then his self esteem suffers because he will think in others’ eyes, he is at the failing end of another major crisis.


The three prominent theorists’ wisdom in delivering their thoughts on human development truly illuminates our understanding on various aspects. Specifically, as is the objective for this paper, they were able to explain how people deal with fear or threat, in this case, the introduction of a new software system to an organisation. Although Skinner, Maslow and Erikson come from different perspectives, when analyzed with a common situation, it is apparent that their theories all fit together. It is amazing how theories from important historical figures can be applicable to sophisticated, modern situations.

It has been said that fear is the basic emotion behind a whole lot of other negative emotions such as jealousy, mistrust, insecurity, guilt because in those emotions/ states, the individual is deeply afraid of either losing or failing. Most of the moral decisions people make in their everyday lives are accompanied by strong emotions.

For instance, personal dilemmas that involve loved ones hurting an individual evoked feelings of anger and righteous indignation; dilemmas involving giving in to temptation tended to evoke guilt, shame, and defensive reactions; dilemmas involving social pressure and threat of punishment tended to evoke anxiety, fear, resentment, and frustration; and dilemmas involving reacting to the needs of others tended to evoke sympathy. These are the situations that make people stop and give vent to their feelings while engaging in critical thought of causes and effects of the circumstances.

It is no different in an emerging and expected change, especially drastic ones that will affect people’s usual routines and relationships. In the case of technology, in itself, it may already elicit fear in some people because of its complicated nature, that it is not enough for an individual to just look at it and he automatically knows how to work it. The individual knows that it would entail studying the gadget thoroughly, so that means, taking him out of his usual activities to invest time to learn it. For most, that would be getting out of their comfort zones and stepping into a whole new adventure which they do not know what to expect.

Skinner contends that the lack of control in such a situation would then create feelings of fear. Reactions to this fear may be expressed in varying degrees from denial of the lack of control to outright protest. When an individual is rewarded with positive reinforcement due to his attempts at learning the new system, then eventually, he would be more accepting of the change.

In every stage of Erikson’s epigenic theory, strong emotions are surfaced during the crises. It is highly possible that fear is involved in each crisis. For example, in the first stage, Trust vs. Mistrust, an infant would be fearful of being abandoned, so he clings to the people he trusts. This is manifested by his blatant cries of despair when his mother leaves him at day care or with the baby sitter. Toddlers are ambivalent when they are in the process of mastering basic physiological skills such as toileting because they may insist on their autonomy, but simultaneously fear failure and thus, incur shame and doubt in themselves.

Young adults falling in love for the first time experience a bittersweet mixture of a longing to be intimate and a fear of isolation. Desiring to have a romantic relationship with a prospective lifetime mate elicits strong urges to woo that person and stand guard to protect the relationship from any threat of competition as the fear of loss of the beloved may rule. Adults in the mid-life stage reflect on the lives they have led and cherish the achievements they have had, but likewise fear that what they have accomplished may not be enough to leave a legacy to the generation after them.

The duality of each epigenetic stage is essential, as it pushes the individual to grow and resolve whatever conflict that beset him. If he is stuck with just one process (ex. Industry without Inferiority), then he can either become complacent and sit on his laurels or be drowning in self-pity and suffer psychological stagnation. In either, growth and development is not attempted. Thus the instillation of fear or threat becomes necessary to prompt an individual to move towards growth.

This is consistent with an individual’s drive towards self-actualization. Overcoming the more basic needs is facilitated by a certain amount of fear of being in a state of need. Moving up the ladder of needs is a fervent act of self-improvement towards being an actualized individual free from the pains of neediness. Once one reaches that stage, he becomes in a higher level of existence.

Skinner’s concept of an individual preferring a state of homeostasis may be interpreted as man’s preference for the status quo. However, he clearly emphasized the necessity of threat, as struggles to overcome it takes a person out of his complacency and move towards action for a better world. In doing so, there is more appreciation for the fruits of the struggle:

“We shall not only have no reason to admire people who endure suffering, face danger, or struggle to be good, it is possible that we shall have little interest in pictures or books about them” (Skinner, 1971, p.164).

He concludes by saying people have been conditioned to prefer the perpetuation of the status quo and a better world will be liked by those who live in it because it was designed with what is or what can be most reinforcing to them (Skinner, 1971).

The behaviorist concept of ‘learned helplessness’ in situations where the subject has tried to conquer a stimulus many times but has failed, or when he is not aware of its next “attack” on his defenseless state may be one explanation of how man reacts to fear or threat. There are times when a person is blissfully living his life when an impending doom suddenly hovers and he raises his defenses to protect himself. He calls on all possible means to help him get rid of such threat which is an innate instinct of survival. If all else fails, then there is probability that he would likewise succumb in a state of ‘learned helplessness’.

Thus, fear of threat may be seen at first, as an obstruction to the pursuit of a better world. This comes with physiological and emotional reactions that are natural defensive reactions programmed into humans. Upon undergoing the process of change, there emerges a better understanding of its role in being the “devil’s advocate”, pushing an individual towards his goals. Unwittingly, this happens many times over a person’s lifetime. Now how a person deals with that fear depends on the strength of his character.. will he succumb to fear and give up altogether or will he stand up to it and fight to win the battle?

Evolution has brought about many circumstances that cause fear in man. One is the birth of technology, which is designed to make life easier, albeit more complicated for him. It is but natural for man to have that basic fear and resistance to yield right away to the seductions of technology simply because of a lack of understanding. However, as he gains more information and knowledge, he suddenly feels reinforced, empowered and safe. The struggle with the fear and threat may just be a passing phase towards something grander and overcoming such struggle is an essential key to man’s success.

It is important for companies to be aware of such theories discussed above to better understand their employees and themselves, for that matter, for the theories have been borne out of years of thorough research. To suddenly introduce a practice or implement a change or reform in the organisation without enough preparation on the part of employees would elicit fear and threat and push employees to raise their walls unyieldingly.

Knowledge of Maslow’s needs theory and Erikson’s psychosocial stages will lead management to be considerate of their employees’ current level of need in the rungs of the ladder to self-actualization and specific stage in their psychosocial development and be able to customize the way they treat their employees or at least understand where their fears may be coming from. To their advantage, management may be able to use this knowledge in formulating an approach in introducing a new reform or technology to the employees that would be acceptable to all.

Skinner’s intentions in the pursuit of social justice and human well-being might have been misunderstood as manifested by much vehement reactions to his ideas. Management may follow his example in conditioning employees towards a certain behavior, but must be wary of being too manipulative of these employees’ choices, and must keep their respect for their decisions. Instilling fear and threat as a way of controlling behavior is not considered humane and will only raise feelings of indignation.

The three theorists discussed have been instrumental in illuminating our conceptions of fear and how people react to it and eventually how they can deal with it and manage it in their lives. It may be impossible to live through life without the possibility of fear or threat creeping in, but instead of seeing them as roadblocks to success, they may even spur man on to embrace the challenge and take with him the strength it can provide him if he overcomes such fears as he goes on his journey to self actualization…. and beyond…..


Altus, D.E. & Morris, E.K. (2004) “B. F. Skinner’s Utopian Vision: Behind and Beyond Walden Two” Contemporary Justice Review, Vol. 7, No. 3, pp. 267–286.

Erikson, E. H. (1959) Identity & the Life Cycle. N.Y.: International Universities Press, Inc.

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Erikson, E.H. (1968) Identity Youth and Crisis. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.

Jessup, J. K. (1948). Utopia bulletin. Fortune, 191–194, 196, 198.

Jones, N. & O’Shea, J. (2004) “Challenging Hierarchies: The Impact of E-Learning.”, Higher Education, Vol 48. pp. 379-395.

Maslow, A.H. (1949) “The Expressive Component of Behavior”, Psychological Review, Vol 56(5). pp. 261-272.

Maslow, A.H. (1954) “The Instinctoid Nature of Basic Needs”, Journal of Personality. pp. 326-347.

Maslow, A.H. (1970) Motivation & Personality. Harper & Row Publishers.

Matson, F. W. (1971). Humanistic theory: The third revolution in psychology. TheHumanist, 7–11.

Moxley, R.A. (2006) “B. F. Skinner’s Other Positivistic Book: Walden Two Behavior and Philosophy, 34, 19-37.

Skinner, B.F. (1948) Walden Two. New York: The Macmillan Co.

Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom & Dignity. N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Skinner, B. F. (1984). The shaping of a behaviorist. New York: New York University Press. (Original work published 1979).

Skinner, B.F. (1992), “’Superstition’ in the Pigeon”, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 1992, Vol. 121, No. 3, 273-274.

Skinner, B.F. (1996) “Some Responses to the Stimulus “Pavlov”, Integrative Physiological And Behavioral Science: The Official Journal Of The Pavlovian Society [Integr Physiol Behav Sci]; Vol. 31 (3), pp. 254-7.

Skinner, B. F. (1999). The concept of the reflex in the description of behavior. In Cumulative record: Definitive edition (pp. 475-503). Acton, MA: Copley.

Zimmer, G. (1999) Behaviorism, B_F_ Skinner, Social Control, Modern Psychology, Man as Machine, and Denial of Man’s Mind and Soul.” Web.