Designing for Fear

By Jezyna Domanska

jezyna1My group has been designing for Parkour, a city-based athletic practice. What I’ve learned about fear from our bodystorming session, is that it’s difficult to convince people to face their fears. A desire to face a fear, or in fact a desire to avoid facing it, seems to be very intrinsic – it’s hard, and potentially dangerous, to motivate someone to do it. That is mostly why designing for fear is not a primary focus of our project after all. Nonetheless, the concept of fear in Parkour and how to design for fear still fascinates me. Accordingly to interviewed Traceurs, conquering fears and expanding one’s comfort zone is a big part of Parkour, and that is what makes this domain so interesting.

Influence on physical performance

There are a few ways in which fear can affect how one performs a movement. First, there is a need for the mental preparation for it – as stated by one of the traceurs during an interview, often in order to succeed one needs to commit to the movement, even, or especially, if it seems scary. Losing confidence and doubting one’s actions mid-jump can have serious consequences. The next aspect is bodily reactions to fear and the stress connected with it. As described by Saville in his paper (2008), on his attempts to perform a scary parkour move:

Feeling so fragile all over. It was as if I could already begin to feel the jagged concrete below crunching through my spine, dislodging vertebra. […] After some time here considering from different angles, testing the surfaces, watching JZ jump the gap, feeling more and more shaky and sick(!), I moved on without trying it.”

Everyone has probably experienced something similar: if one is scared of heights or open spaces, then upon reaching the edge of a cliff and glancing down, the breath becomes more shallow, the heart beat speeds up, the hands begin to sweat. It is fairly safe to state that fear can have a great impact on bodily performance.

Fear through some concepts from phenomenology

Perception is shaped by the Phenomenal Field

Svanæs (2013) explained Merleau-Ponty’s term of phenomenal field as a “personal background of experiences, training, and habits that shapes the way in which we perceive the world.” This term can help determine what can make certain things scary. For example, if a task was jumping over an obstacle – memories of failed jump attempts, falling, hitting an obstacle, etc. could contribute to one’s phenomenal field and thus to how one perceives the task. However, I would argue that also a lack of experience significantly affects one’s perception of task, potentially contributing to one’s phenomenal field. Lack of experience in performing such exercises could contribute to the inability to accurately judge one’s capabilities, thus underestimating oneself and overestimating the difficulty of the task itself.

To provide an example, during bodystorming we asked participants to perform several different kinds of jumps on a ledge. The ledge wasn’t very high and was within most (if not all) participants’ reach, yet still most people objected to some extent before attempting the jump. However, all of those who attempted the jump managed to complete it and most of them (if not all) were surprised at how easy the jump turned out to be.

Perception has Directedness

Merleau-Ponty presented directedness as one of the properties of perception. Svanæs (2013) explained this concept as “What we see in the world thus also depends on our intentions as directed by our tasks or goals.” He supported this by providing an example of visualisation of eye movement of a layperson and an artist on a painting. In the same time, a layperson focused almost entirely on a face that was in the middle of the painting, while an artist scanned the entire art piece including the background, which might have seemed mundane to a non-experienced passer-by.

The first consequence regarding parkour that comes to mind in relation to this theory, could be that a traceur and a non-traceur would perceive items such as walls, ledges, and benches differently – a traceur would see it as an item to jump or roll over, while for a non-traceur it would remain a mundane, everyday element of the environment.

This thinking is not incorrect, but I think it could be possible to go deeper into this. Fear could be a very strong factor that affects our ‘intentions as directed by our tasks or goals’, and thus affects how we see the world.

For example, if the intention would be to jump over a gap between two buildings. The phenomenal field would be based on a clear judgement of how far the distance is between the buildings and previous memories of jumping over a similar distance during parkour practices and other previous experiences similar to this situation. Based on those factor, the perception should be seeing this gap between buildings as a doable exercise for which we are well prepared, seeing edges of the wall as a holds, and a few bricks on the wall as a potential feet placement. However, when fear enters the scene, the perception suddenly changes. The gap stops being of a well-measured size, it becomes bigger and less doable. The distance to the ground becomes longer, the landing spot no longer seems so trustworthy, the perception of validity of preparations done for this task becomes distorted, and the body no longer seems well-prepared for this.

Influence on mental performance

The fact that people with extreme fears experience perceptual distortions has been documented in literature (Rachman and Cuk, 1992). Impact of fear on one’s judgement has also been explored by Stefanucci et al (2008). The researchers conducted a study in which they asked people to estimate how steep a hill was, while standing on top of it. Some of the participants were standing on a skateboard facing downhill, to evoke a feeling of fear, that was attached to the ground for safety reasons. They have found that while all participants judged the hill to be steeper than it actually was, the scared ones (on skateboards), judged it to be steeper and scarier than the rest of the participants.

So, fear may make our judgements irrational. As expressed by Damasio (2001), “the emotions often operate as a basic mechanism for making decisions without the labors of reason, that is, without resorting to deliberated considerations of facts, options, outcomes, and rules of logic.” To give an example from my own experience – I used to exercise in a climbing gym which had a route that was initially challenging for me. It took me multiple tries and a lot of advice and reassurance from more experienced climbers until I managed to overcome the crux movement. I progressed over time and started doing more demanding routes, but this one, even though rationally speaking was easier, still stayed in my mind, and I came back to it every climbing session. The fear connected to certain parts of the route made it so that I usually didn’t manage to get through it in the first go, even though the movements were well-rehearsed. In fact, my hands still got a bit sweaty when I was writing this description, even though the events took place more than 2 years ago.

However, the fact that fear is often not grounded in rational reasoning is not a reason to try to exclude the fear or get rid of it. On the contrary, Damasio (2001) states that “emotion is critical for survival in the complex organisms equipped to process it” and that “emotion plays a role in reasoning and decision-making, from the simple decisions that animals make to avert danger or to endorse an advantageous encounter, to the more complex decisions that we humans can consider”.

Designing for fear

Therefore, fear (and other emotions) plays an important part in our reasoning, and thus is something that could be an important factor to design for. There are examples in the literature on how to design to help eliminate or reduce the fear (Koskela and Pain, 2000), but I think it would be more interesting to design for how to learn to handle it. For example, Botella et al. (2000) wrote a paper on the use of Virtual Reality in claustrophobia therapy. They have developed two VR settings, a room and an elevator, with different possible impediments, such as making the room smaller, and closing or blocking the elevator. The participants of the study took part in 8 sessions with VR software, facing the challenges with the support of a therapist, and all of them noted improvements.

Altogether, fear is an important aspect of human perception and its qualities make it a very interesting concept to design for. Yet, the area of designing for dealing with fear or conquering it does not seem to be intensively explored. It would be interesting to see how designing for fear will develop in the future and where the design for overcoming fears and expanding the comfort zone could bring us.


Botella C., Baños R. M., Villa H., Perpiñá C., García-Palacios A. (2000), Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Claustrophobic Fear: A Controlled, Multiple-Baseline Design, Behaviour Therapy, 31, 538-595

Damasio A. R. (2001), Emotion and the Human Brain, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, volume 935, 101-106

Koskela H., Pain R. (2000), Revisiting fear and place: women’s fear of attack and the built environment, Geoforum, volume 31, issue 2, 269-280

Rachman S., Cuk M. (1992), Fearful distortions, Behavioral Research Therapy, 30, 583-589

Saville S.J. (2008) Playing with fear: parkour and the mobility of emotion, Social & Cultural Geography, 9:8, 891-914

Stefanucci J.K., Proffitt D.R., Clore G.L., Parekh N. (2008), Skating down a steeper slope: Fear influences the perception of geographical slant, Perception, 37, 321-323

Svanæs D. (2013) Interaction design for and with the lived body: Some implications of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 20, 1, Article 8


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