The Fear Trap


When we hear fear stories of the end of times coming from pundits and social media posts, this is nothing new. Fear sells, and it has sold for millennia, from doomsday prophesies to Cold War movies to color-coded terror threat levels.

So why does now seem worse—why do we seem to be inching ever closer to the end of the world, at least as we know it? Why does terrorism regularly poll as one of America’s top fears despite the fact that, aside from the tragic events on September 11, 2001, deaths caused by terrorism are a third of what they averaged in the 1970s and ’80s and about half of what they were at the peak in the mid-1980s And though violent crime rates are fluctuating up this year, the rates of violent crimes in major cities are still much lower than they were in the 1990s, and since the recent peak in 2006 (with the exception of Chicago). Ebola, despite its tragic outbreak in West Africa, did not end up causing the collapse of global civilization.

But the 24-hour news cycle and competing platforms need to fill in all the empty spaces and also generate a profit, and bad news and fear continue to sell. The evolution of “eyewitness news” has made everyone a potential recorder of tragedies, horrors, injustices, and general doomsday events, keeping us continuously on the lookout for the next tragedy, horror, and injustice. All of which can keep us in a perpetual state of fear.

Part of how human beings operate is to be wary of the unknown, a primal survival mechanism. Over time, feeding into this mechanism rewires the brain to fear what is unknown or unfamiliar. From that point, fear becomes the familiar feeling, and anything unfamiliar is deemed to be unsafe. This reprogramming can go so far as to trick the brain into thinking that news of lower crime and terror rates, that things aren’t as bad as thought, aren’t to be trusted. Good news isn’t what has become familiar. New information is scary.

This is true of personal experience, in which people stay in the abusive relationship because it is familiar, as well as politics, where demagogues and demagogue wannabes use fear to control the public. Machiavelli has an entire chapter of his seminal work, The Prince, devoted to the idea that being both loved and feared is important, but to pick one, it is safer to be feared than loved, which has been the playbook for world leaders since the 1530s. When citizens feel threatened, they look to a savior, a Superman or strong man who can save them from terror and return their familiar way of life. Citizens then can be so desperate for safety that they become willing to give up certain rights in exchange for their safety, putting on blinders to potential abuses of power.

When politicians or news media tell people that something is true, even if it seems ridiculous, the repetition of that news fosters familiarity with that news, making it seem less ridiculous over time. At a certain point, that ridiculous or false piece of news gets accepted as a truth. For those who might not necessarily believe that piece of news or accept it as truth, the repetition breaks down the resistance to it—and the fake news becomes one of those facets of life that must be accepted as normal.

But the power of fear can be resisted by understanding that much of our fear comes from manipulation of public panic and not from actual data. Fear employs an emotional response, a primal impulse—but our brains have evolved to also think rationally. This later development helps us to assess more complex situations and to participate within complex societies. When human brains first developed, the primal center was responsible for recognizing saber-toothed tigers and telling humans either to run or pick up a big rock. These are the reflexes that make us duck or flinch when we hear a loud noise. But our world is no longer that simple. We need our rational responses to judge the accuracy of the messages we are being given. Using our judgment centers is a way of exercising our own power, our autonomy of thought. Without that capacity to reason, we are left only with reactionary emotion, which can be easily influenced by those in a position to exploit those emotions for their own gains.