I'm writing paper about climate change and its economic impacts on society. Is there a generally accepted technical term for "fear of the unknown" in psychology?

  • $\begingroup$ Generalized anxiety. $\endgroup$
    – Wossname
    May 6, 2016 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ I think the better question is not if there is a term, but rather whether it has a meaningful (e.g. testable) definition... $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2019 at 19:13

3 Answers 3


The closest formal term I'm aware of is Xenophobia but that term has been primarily used to describe a fear or dislike of foreign people, so I wouldn't use it in any context other than that.

I would simply use the explicit phrase fear of the unknown; general fears are often referred to in an explicit manner like that. "Fear of the unknown" written out as such is commonly used in articles as are "fear of death" etc. While phrases like "arachnophobia" are common in popular use, phobias are really only irrational and extreme fears; as such an X-phobia term is often inappropriate when not discussing irrational, specific fears on an individual basis.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Following the tendency to use 'phobia', perhaps agnostophobia could be used as to mean 'fear of the unknown'...? $\endgroup$
    – Paul
    Dec 5, 2012 at 19:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Paul I think you should add this as answer. $\endgroup$
    – bummi
    Dec 13, 2012 at 6:52

"Ambiguity aversion" aka "uncertainty aversion" has been studied more recently in game theory. This is not exactly "fear", but it's something what's formalizable.

a preference for known risks over unknown risks. An ambiguity-averse individual would rather choose an alternative where the probability distribution of the outcomes is known over one where the probabilities are unknown. [...]

The distinction between ambiguity aversion and risk aversion is important but subtle. Risk aversion comes from a situation where a probability can be assigned to each possible outcome of a situation and it is defined by the preference between a risky alternative and its expected value. Ambiguity aversion applies to a situation when the probabilities of outcomes are unknown (Epstein 1999) and it is defined through the preference between risky and ambiguous alternatives, after controlling for preferences over risk.

Using the traditional two-urn Ellsberg choice, urn A contains 50 red balls and 50 blue balls while urn B contains 100 total balls (either red or blue) but the number of each is unknown. An individual who prefers a certain payoff strictly smaller than $10 over a bet that pays \$20 if the color of a ball drawn from urn A is guessed correctly and \$0 otherwise is said to be risk averse but nothing can be said about her preferences over ambiguity. On the other hand, an individual who strictly prefers that same bet if the ball is drawn from urn A over the case where the ball is drawn from urn B is said to be ambiguity averse but not necessarily risk averse.

And to relate this notion to empirical psychology, or at least to behavioral economics:

People shy away from processes about which they think they have insufficient information (Frisch and Baron 1988).

This happens in particular if an alternative process with a higher perceived informational content is available (Chow and Sarin 2001; Fox and Tversky 1995; Fox and Weber 2002). The effect appears to be particularly strong when somebody with a higher knowledge of the outcome generating process may serve as a comparison (Heath and Tversky 1991; Taylor 1995) or observes the decision (Chow and Sarin 2002).

A preference for the more informative process may be explained by fear of negative evaluation, which is driven by the expectation that one’s actions or judgments may be difficult to justify in front of others. When the audience’s views on an issue are unknown and no prior commitment to one course of action exists, people have been found to make the decision which they deem most easily justifiable to others rather than the one that is intrinsically optimal (Shafir et al. 1993; Simonson 1989; Lerner and Tetlock 1999). In this way they minimize the risk of being judged negatively by others on their quality as decision makers.

Choosing the unfamiliar process entailed by the ambiguous urn may lead to embarrassment if a losing outcome should obtain (Ellsberg 1963; Fellner 1961; Heath and Tversky 1991; Roberts 1963; Tetlock 1991; Toda and Shuford 1965). The risky prospect is perceived as more justifiable than the ambiguous one because potentially available probabilistic information is missing from the ambiguous urn (Frisch and Baron 1988). This is consistent with people’s preference for betting on future events rather than on past events, given that information about past events is potentially available whereas the future has yet to materialize (Brun and Teigen 1990; Rothbart and Snyder 1970). It is also consistent with people’s unwillingness to act on the basis of ambiguous information (van Dijk and Zeelenberg 2003).

A decision based on more information is generally perceived as better (Tetlock and Boettger 1989), and it has been shown that a risky prospect is generally considered preferable to an ambiguous one by a majority of people (Keren and Gerritsen 1999). Kocher and Trautmann (2007) find that people correctly anticipate these negative attitudes towards ambiguity. If a bad outcome were to result from a prospect about which an agent had comparatively little knowledge, her failure may be blamed on her incompetence or ‘uninformed’ choice (Baron and Hershey 1988). A bad outcome resulting from a risky prospect, on the other hand, cannot be attributed to poor judgment. All possible information about the risky prospect was known, and a failure is simply bad luck (Heath and Tversky 1991; Toda and Shuford 1965).

Compare with:

Fear of the unknown (FOTU) will be defined herein as, “an individual’s propensity to experience fear caused by the perceived absence of information at any level of consciousness or point of processing”; relatedly, intolerance of uncertainty (IU) will be defined as, “an individual’s dispositional incapacity to endure the aversive response triggered by the perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information, and sustained by the associated perception of uncertainty.” [...]

Factorially distinct

Research exploring FOTU, as reflected by IU, as factorially independent from other constructs has been conducted with the Intolerance of Uncertainty short form (i.e., IUS-12; Carleton, Norton et al., 2007). The available results have provided robust support that FOTU is factorially distinct. The first such study supporting factorial independence was conducted by (Carleton, Sharpe et al., 2007) using undergraduate data. There have been two subsequent publications investigating different aspects of factorial independence for FOTU (Carleton, Thibodeau, Osborne, & Asmundson, 2012; Carleton, Thibodeau et al., 2014). The publications used a large sample of undergraduates and community members who provided responses to measures of anxiety sensitivity, fear of injury or illness, fear of negative evaluation, fear of pain, and FOTU as measured by IU; nevertheless, independent replications appear well-warranted.

I would not bet the claim to factorial distinctiveness holds because of the limited research, but at least you can refer to FOTU as such, although frankly it seems to based on IU rather than an experiment showing actual fear. Maybe some neuroimaging would help...

TLDR: I think intolerance/aversion to "the unknown" or more precisely to uncertainty/ambiguity is a more established concept than a fear of the same.


There is agnosiophobia, which is the fear of not knowing, (the opposite being gnosiophobiafear of knowledge/knowing).

There is also agnostophobia which is fear of the unknown.


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