The Evolutionary Reason We Can’t Shake Public Speaking Fear

The human race has made huge leaps in technology and science. We understand more than ever about the neuroplasticity of our brains. We use social media and technology to connect with strangers all over the planet. And we enjoy medical advancements that extend our life expectancy and fight back global pandemics. So why can’t we make the same progress when it comes to public speaking fear?

For nearly two decades I have watched public speakers struggle with fear.  And I am more convinced than ever that public speaking fear is tied to our evolutionary roots. So let’s see how our survival instincts and our fear of ostracism still impact our thoughts about public speaking today.

Fear of the Situation: Survival Instincts

Studies have shown that fear of public speaking might be tied to an evolutionary survival skill: belonging to a group. Biologist Dr. Glenn Croston writes, “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 fight them off danger. 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.”

In other words, the fear of not being able to survive on our own is what led humans to form society. The story of fear, written into our genetic code for thousands of years, is that we must be part of a group to survive. And that if we get isolated from that group, we could die.

This deep, often subconscious, fear leads to public speakers today in a completely safe environment, standing up in front of a group of smiling audience members, but shaking as if their lives were in danger. Somewhere within in them lies the deeply etched message: if you screw this up, it could be the end of you.

Fear of the Audience: Ostracism

We might, at the surface, believe we fear the audience because we could embarrass ourselves while speaking. And that makes sense. But scientists say that our fear of ostracism from the audience is the more likely culprit. Because, on some level, we still believe that in order to survive, we have to find a group. But we also have to make sure that group we do find doesn’t kick us out.

Kipling Williams is a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University who studies ostracism. He says, “Although it is cliché to say that ‘humans are social animals,’ it is nonetheless true. Nothing threatens this fundamental aspect of our being more than being excluded and ignored by others.” He says that neuroimaging has even shown ostracism to register as pain in the human brain. So when we feel nervous to give a presentation, we could be trying to protect ourselves from that pain.

Our evolutionary need to first find a group to help us survive, and then to cement our place within that group could be at the root of our public speaking fear. If it truly has become part of our biological and neurological makeup, it would make sense why we can’t seem to shake this particular fear.

So what can we do about this persistent public speaking fear? We can start with awareness. We can remember that our ancestors were fearful of being alone or being ostracized. So it makes sense that we might have some of their old fears still floating around in our brains and bodies. And then we can remember that cave-man thinking doesn’t have to control our performance in this marvelously modern world.

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