When I was in college, I worked at a lumberyard. One day, the boss asked me to climb to the second level of a storage barn at the back of the property and do an inventory on the 4’ by 8’ sheets of paneling in bins at the top of the barn. There was a one foot ledge in front of each bin, and so I had to sit on that ledge, about 10 feet off the ground, and lift each sheet of paneling in the bin to count them all. After the second bin, I slid over to the ladder, climbed down, and gave up. I was simply too scared of the drop to continue.
When do people become afraid of heights?
This question was discussed in a paper in the February, 2014 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science by Karen Adolph, Kari Kretch, and Vanessa LoBue.
If you are familiar with research in developmental psychology, then the answer might seem obvious. In the 1960s, there was a lot of research done on the visual cliff, which was developed by Eleanor Gibson and her colleagues. The visual cliff involves a ledge with a checkerboard pattern. There is glass at the dropoff of the ledge, so that infants see the cliff, but do would not be hurt by stepping onto it. Infants who have first learned to crawl climb right out onto the cliff. Those with a few weeks of movement experience stop at the edge.
It seems straightforward to say that the infants stop at the edge, because they are afraid of falling. And for years, that was the standard way of talking about infants’ performance on the visual cliff.
The problem is that infants don’t really display a true fear reaction when they get to the edge of the cliff. They don’t climb out onto it, but they do spend a lot of time peering over the edge. They reach out and explore the space. They do not display fear on their faces. They do not cling to their parents.
Infants of that age can display fear. For example, when infants of that age are approached by strangers, they do cling to a familiar adult, have an increase in heart rate, and have facial expressions and make noises that are fearful. So, infants can feel fear, they just don’t seem to exhibit that fear to the cliff.
Instead, infants quickly discover that heights create situations in which something can be learned. For example, infants learn about ramps and stairs. Over time, they learn which stairs can be climbed up and down and which are too high. They learn what kinds of ramps are too steep to climb down. Work by Karen Adolph and her colleagues even demonstrates that infants react differently to ramps depending on whether they are wearing a vest with lead weights in it (which makes a ramp harder to descend) or with feathers in it (which has little effect on their movements).
Early on, then, infants are curious about heights, but not fearful. They recognize that they should not immediately dive over a cliff, but they also spend time in that environment trying to learn what they can and cannot do.
Eventually, of course, many children do display some fear of heights. Some children may fall and learn their fear in that way. However, just watching someone else fall or even something else fall from a height may be enough to help children realize the dangers of falling from heights. But, this fear does not kick in until after children have had some opportunity to explore their environment.