Was the fear of cold the ultimate human fear?

I feel that for anyone who’s background is in Europe especially northern Europe the fear of freezing to death was the ultimate factor people dealt with until maybe the last 100 years. People adjusted their lives around the seasons. They built homes and heating systems specifically to cope with cold weather. They planted, harvested, and stored food specifically in order to make it thru the winter. As kids we always had to dress warmly when going out. Its like winter was the ultimate force they were always having to deal with.

Now of course with modern heating systems we see people who hardly even own a coat anymore. I see kids who go to school wearing shorts even in January. I’ll even say for me often while I keep a coat handy, since my car is kept in a heated garage I often go out to places without a coat. Its an odd habit to break since when I was growing up my German parents would have a fit if we didnt have coats, hats, and mittens on at all times.

Now personally, I think this is why people really have no problem with global warming. We know that winters have not been as harsh as they used to be and we are glad.

What do you all think?

A very astute observation but I think also incorrect. That cold was a lot more of a hardship to people in the past than we realize, with that I totally agree. But I think they feared starvation, disease and violence more.

Who’s this “we”? Many of us just emerged from a pretty harsh winter, and the previous one as well.

And just because people spend a lot of time avoiding freezing to death, doesn’t at all mean it’s the “ultimate human fear”. Spending a lot of time clothing themselves doesn’t mean a morbid fear of being naked.

I would put the ultimate human fear as fear of the unknown. Such fear has lead to discrimination, xenophobia, monsters hiding under children’s beds, religions, political power structures and laws, and yes homes which do include central heating systems. Trying to organize chaos to make us more comfortable by knowing and trying to control what to expect. It is the fear that created our modern society.

But not as harsh as they suffered in the 1850’s, though.

I’d have thought fear of darkness might be the number 1. Anything could be lurking out there in the dark (so it’s related to fear of the unknown). Also consider the mythological connection with darkness representing evil.

Global warming does not mean that all regions of the globe are now warmer all year round.

Agreed. Both intrinsically, and as a fear multiplier. Everything is scarier at night. The ordinary little incidental noises of any house or home are, at night, creepy and eerie and threatening.

Kids use night-lights for a damn good reason. (Er…and some adults.)

ISTR that some researchers concluded that the #1 and #2 instinctive fears were:

Loud noises and/or


Which led Steve Allen to declare, “I have a great fear of making a loud noise while falling.”

But did alot of people freeze to death? Most people in there homes or businesses stay pretty warm. Think about windows. A pane of glass in 1850 was just that, a pane of glass. Almost no insulating factor. Now windows can have a heavy thermal rating.

I’m thinking of the 1850’s where farm houses were built on top of the barn so the heat from the cows helped heat the house. People pretty much just huddled around the cookstove.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a single person who’s even marginally afraid of being coid, to the extent that they avoid air conditioning or cold climates or freezers or whatever. On the other hand, I’ve met dozens of people that I know of, and probably hundreds more that I don’t, who are afraid of everything for spiders to heights to snakes, sometimes cripplingly so. Fear of cold seems to be a real condition, but it seems to be culturally-determined and fairly rare. Definitely not the “ultimate human fear”.

I think people have no problem with global warming because humans aren’t equipped to be able to be genuinely worried about and plan for such long term problems.

There is a belief, quite widely held, that dying from the cold is a “merciful” way to die, peaceful and even comfortable. It’s desperately unpleasant at first, but then you get numb, and quietly drift off to sleep.

I have no idea if this is true, but it’s very prevalent in fiction from the past two centuries.

(Apparently, there is even an effect of feeling uncomfortably warm while freezing to death. One guy who was found in the Angeles National Forest had taken off his clothing, and the Sheriff’s rescuers, interviewed on the news, explained this phenomenon.)

Paradoxical undressing

Twenty to fifty percent of hypothermia deaths are associated with paradoxical undressing. This typically occurs during moderate to severe hypothermia, as the person becomes disoriented, confused, and combative. They may begin discarding their clothing, which, in turn, increases the rate of heat loss.[21][22]

Rescuers who are trained in mountain survival techniques are taught to expect this; however, some may assume incorrectly that urban victims of hypothermia have been subjected to a sexual assault.[23]

One explanation for the effect is a cold-induced malfunction of the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature. Another explanation is that the muscles contracting peripheral blood vessels become exhausted (known as a loss of vasomotor tone) and relax, leading to a sudden surge of blood (and heat) to the extremities, fooling the person into feeling overheated.

From Wiki

I don’t think it was fear of cold, per-se, but fear of winter, and everything that came with it- cold, starvation, disease, and the potential that even if you didn’t starve, you might cut into the next year’s seed-corn or breeding stock to stay alive in the short term, but screwing yourself the following year.

I think us 21st century people don’t have a good concept of just what a threat winter was to someone outside a big city say… 150 years ago. They had to preserve food and plan to make it through a winter without any major sources of food.

Even at that, I don’t think it’s a primal fear. It takes some forethought to be afraid of winter, while primal fears aren’t really rational or involve a lot of actual thought.

This winter we broke multiple records set in the 1800s. We now have better ways to deal with the snow, but wasn’t less harsh on either a snow or cold level.

And yes, several people froze to death this winter and last. Mostly children and the disabled, but others were just unlucky or willfully stupid (see: NH)

Wisconsin: FOX 9 Minneapolis-St. Paul

Wisconsin: (adult) Mentally ill man froze to death days after police were called

Utah: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2597633/Hadley-Boberg-20-froze-death-friend-lost-keys-Jeep-hiking-Utah-woods-frigid-weather.html

Toronto: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/21/elijah-marsh-frozen-to-death_n_6726476.html

Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/01/24/3200211/homeless-deaths/

New Hampshire: http://gawker.com/new-york-city-banker-found-frozen-to-death-in-new-hamps-1686334170

New York (different person than story above): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2939651/Passers-step-DEAD-homeless-man-New-York-froze-death-steps-record-store.html

New Jersey (different person than story above): http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/new-jersey-woman-freezes-death-article-1.2116523

Georgia: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/clayton-county-caretaker-found-guilty-after-man-fr/nkTzk/

New York (person #3): http://nypost.com/2015/02/16/body-of-elderly-man-found-on-coney-island-boardwalk/

Minnesota: http://hollywoodlife.com/2014/02/28/girl-6-found-frozen-to-death-by-devastated-mother-after-being-locked-out/

Toronto (an adult this time): Latest Breaking News, Headlines & Updates | National Post

Michigan: http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/wayne-county/2015/01/13/wyandotte-frozen-death/21689627/

Iowa: http://q13fox.com/2015/03/19/troubled-veteran-sought-help-from-va-hospital-froze-to-death/

…and what looks like dozens more people :frowning:

We’re hairless (well, at least MOST of us are) for a reason.

The earliest homo sapien fossils have been found in Ethiopia. I’m going to go on record and say that their biggest fear was not freezing to death but being eaten alive by a crocodile. Brrr!

Men moved to cooler climates when they discovered coping mechanisms for colder climates. That’s what makes us unique in the animal kingdom, no? We’re all over the globe because we are smart enough to build a fire or build a shelter should a cave not be handy.

“Ultimate human fear” could certainly be measured in multiple ways - level of panic? economic expenditure? incidence of phobias?

However, even in the list of activities in the OP’s post, they are not all cold-related fears. Storing up food is necessary to survive winter in most regions, but it won’t protect you from the cold. A lot of the clothing and shelter we build isn’t even necessary for survival as much as for comfort.

Also, people can enjoy winter weather. We all recognize that blizzards and frozen lakes are potentially dangerous, but that’s a rational fear. Given a nice winter day, most of us enjoy playing in the snow if we have the chance. We’re not huddling inside thinking “Maybe I’ll die if I even look outside.”

Extrapolating this to global warming, I just don’t see that connection either. Global warming is something that is hard to people to connect with because it’s too big, too slow and too statistically noisy.

(By noisy, I mean that the difference in temperature daily and seasonally is so much bigger than the overall warming trend. Who notices an average increase of 2 degree when you live with seasonal variations of 40 degrees? Even rising ocean levels will largely be perceived as individual crisis events; the storm that didn’t flood your house ten years ago will flood it this year. By the time your house is continually under water, you’ll be long gone.)