Museum of Science, Boston

Real vs Pretend Fears

What do young children think is scary?

Research suggests that children often find fantasy creatures (e.g., monsters and ghosts) scary before they find real things (e.g., snakes, mean dogs) scary. In this study, we want to know whether children pay more attention to whether the animal is real or pretend, or whether the animal’s behavior can be controlled. In our lab, we’re also interested in finding out whether children's understanding of fear is similar across different cultures.

In this study, children aged 3-9 hear short stories about the things that make a protagonist (Sally) feel scared. In some stories Sally is afriad of imaginary things (e.g., a monster in the closet); and in others she is afraid of real things (e.g., being chased by a mean dog). After each story, children are asked “How does Sally feel?” By examining their responses to each story, we hope to understand how children learn what is scary, and whether children find different things scary at different ages. We also want to know whether having control over the creature will make it seem less scary.

In our lab, we also want to know whether children in non-Western cultures have different concepts of fear. To find out, we’ll compare American children’s answers with those of Palestinian children. So far we have found that American children understand fantastical fears before realistic fears. Palestinian children show the opposite pattern – they understand real fears before fantastical ones.

By understanding what children think is scary, we can better understand how they interpret emotions and react in the face of real dangers.

Learn about other research related to Children's Understanding of Emotion.

This research is conducted by the Emotion Development Lab at Boston College

Try it at the Museum

Black bear

Find the black bear mount at the entrance to the Discovery Center. How does your child react to this animal? Is s/he hesitant to go near it? Does s/he approach it right away?

How quickly does s/he understand that this bear isn’t dangerous? What kind of cues show that it is safe, and not scary?

Protect the nest

Robins fend off predators by making noise and flying close to the intruder to scare them away from the nest. Make a nest with your child, and then pretend to be a predator. How should a robin react to a bear coming close to their nest? What about an owl?

How would the robins react to an imaginary predator, like a dragon? How do other animals show fear or defend themselves?

Try it at Home

Storybook villains

What kind of villains are in your children’s movies and storybooks? Are they fantastical, imaginary creatures, or realistic things and situations?

Does the nature of storybook villains seem to change, depending on whether the story is geared toward younger, rather than older children?