urveys about our fears commonly show fear of public speaking at the top of the list. Our fear of standing up in front of a group and talking is so great that we fear it more than death*, in surveys at least. On one hand I understand, having sweated myself about getting up in front of a group. On the other hand, it seems odd that we’re so afraid — what are we afraid of, anyway?
Over the years I’ve done my share of public speaking. Just like you – even if I know exactly what I’m going to say and what the audience wants to hear – my throat tends to dry up at the last moment, my pulse increases and I feel nervousness.
What do we think will happen to us? We’re unlikely to suffer any real or lasting harm — or are we? The answer seems to lie in our remote past, in our evolution as social animals.
Humans evolved over the last few million years in a world filled with risks like large predators and starvation. One common defense to predation displayed by primates and other animals is to live in groups. In a group, other group members can alert each other to predators and help to fight them off. The advantages of living in a group probably are the reason why early humans and other large primates evolved to be social, and why we are still social today.
So how does that primate behavior explain your fear of public speaking?
Those that worked together well, helping others in their group, probably survived and passed on traits that contributed to social behavior. Anything that threatens our status in our social group, like the threat of ostracism, feels like a very great risk to us. The fear is not just about public speaking, but is also faced my many others who are faced with getting in front of a crowd and performing like athletes, actors, and musicians. When faced with standing up in front of a group, we break into a sweat because we are afraid of rejection. And at a primal level, the fear is so great because we are not merely afraid of being embarrassed, or judged. We are afraid of being rejected from the social group, ostracized and left to defend ourselves all on our own.
* on a side note, if people are more afraid of public speaking than of death, that would imply most people at a funeral would prefer to be the dead body in the coffin than the person delivering the eulogy.