The Fear of Vulnerability: Nature or Nurture?

VulnerableI’m writing a play right now. The two characters are struggling to connect because of their fear of vulnerability.

This is a very old and common theme, on-stage and off. So, I wonder, is it in our nature to fear vulnerability? Has it provided us with a reproductive advantage?

On first reflection, it doesn’t seem like there should be any reproductive advantage to such a fear. We often experience vulnerability when we think or know we are more attached to someone than they are to us. A fear of this kind of vulnerability would, I think, lead to fewer rather than more attachments. Attachment is the foundation of all human relations. Without it, far fewer babies would be born or survive. So, if this analysis is correct, it seems likely that a fear of vulnerability shouldn’t lead to a reproductive advantage.

However, perhaps this fear of vulnerability helps us to be more selective or discerning in our attachments. Yes, attachment is good, but attachment to the best primates is better. Perhaps, a fear of vulnerability leads to more stable pair bonds, and maybe this leads to a reproductive advantage in the long run. There is some plausibility to this conclusion.

Of course, there may be a whole other way to approach the question of why we fear vulnerability. Perhaps, we humans are naturally inclined to form attachments fearlessly and it is human society that has evolved in such a way that very many of us endure experiences that almost always engender a deep fear of vulnerability. We are not born with a fear of vulnerability, but instead learn to fear it as we live in a social environment, which is very different from the one in which we first evolved.

If a fear of vulnerability is not a question of our nature, but is instead the result of a certain kind of nurture, overcoming and eventually eliminating the fear of vulnerability could be a way to return to where we began. The wise, for example, are often said to be very much like children. Moreover, if a fear of vulnerability is a reasonable and rational response to social life as it has evolved, it may also help explain why the wise often stand apart and outside of conventional society.

And my characters? Will they get over their fears and connect? Fortunately, for them, the fantasy of fiction is far neater and far simpler than fact. Maybe that’s why we enjoy it so much.

4 thoughts on “The Fear of Vulnerability: Nature or Nurture?

  1. If I was judging by my children I would say fear of vulnerability is learned. In fact, I often find myself checking myself when I want to reign in my extremely gregarious 3 year old to avoid instilling that fear. She is socially fearless and loves to converse with and touch anyone who enters her sphere. And, being 3, she has no limits on conversations. She is often surprised and/or upset when someone won’t answer her questions. Her love is completely freely given without any regard to whether or not it will be returned in kind.

    1. Thanks, Amanda!

      Your observations fit with my much more limited experience of children. It also seems to make sense. Given the relatively small social units we evolved in all those years ago, it makes good sense. Most people in near proximity to a child probably was a pretty good and safe option for attachment.

      Of course, this may be a trait of only the youngest members of the species. Perhaps, when your daughter is older, a weariness of others might just kick in, in the same way that other brain functions eventually come online.

    1. Thanks, Bryn.

      I am likewise inclined to believe it is learned. I also wonder if it might be something that kicks in on its own at a later age. Of course, it might kick in because kids learn it. At this point, I’m not even sure if we could distinguish the different causes, once it kicks in.

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