The World’s Most Common Fear

In this clip, comedian Jerry Seinfeld jokes about how widespread the fear of public speaking is. It is true that public speaking, or glossophobia, is almost always present on lists of top ten phobias. It is often found somewhere near the fear of flying and fear of spiders. A quick Google search reveals a multitude of lists of tips and even entire websites devoted to helping people conquer glossophobia. But there is less available information about why we are so afraid of speaking in front of crowds. So why do we tremble at the thought of addressing a crowd? In a world: Evolution.

There is an evolutionary origin to our fear of public speaking. In every person, there is a caveman/cavewoman lurking. Part of our brain belongs to that caveperson. Any fight or flight decision you make in a split second is the work of that caveperson, ever working to preserve your lives. Your reflexes, instincts and gut-feelings are all vestiges of a time before our prefrontal-cortex let logic dictate our choices. Those animalistic tendencies have more power over us then we’d like to admit. Those instincts help us more often than not and have most likely saved your life at some point. Sometimes, however, they can hold us back. The fear of public speaking is an example of that.

Addressing an audience requires us to separate from the group — something our inner caveperson wants to avoid at all costs. Early in human development, maintaining position in a social group was absolutely necessary for survival. Aristotle taught us that we are social animals, but the need to cooperate with a group was even more absolute when we were fighting off saber tooth tigers and trying to survive long winters. For your inner caveperson, public speaking is literally a life or death situation. That explains why you have such visceral, physical reactions: your heart races, palms sweat and voice shakes with nerves. Every instinct demands you return to the fold, less you be caught in the wild alone and vulnerable.

So how do we calm our inner caveperson? For some, the knowledge that your instincts are getting ahead of you may be enough to take the edge off. It is important not to try and silence the caveperson totally. Trying to bury or ignore it will only amplify it. Instead, you need to accept that inner terror for what it is: an artifact of an earlier version of yourself. Love you inner caveperson and the voice will become quieter until eventually it is just a peep. Many of the worlds best orators still feel nervous before an engagement. The key is to not let that nervousness get the better of you.

from Peter Orszag


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