Fear Makes Us Dumb, and Possibly Doomed

There is now a political constituency being crafted at the highest level that has fear as a motivating factor. Once the limits are taken off, we end up in this Mad Max world where whatever is politically profitable will be used, no matter how destructive it is.

Transcribed from the 16 September episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Fear doesn’t help us survive in the modern world. What it does is lower our ability to make careful, sensible decisions.

Chuck Mertz: We are all being manipulated by fear. From the government to the media, they have changed who we are, how we think, and how we respond and react. They’ve made it so all our decisionmaking is grounded in the irrationality of fear. Here to scare the hell out of us about fear, Sasha Abramsky is author of Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.

Welcome back to This is Hell!, Sasha.

Sasha Abramsky: Hi, Charles. Thanks for having me on.

CM: It’s great having you on again.

You describe how you became horribly and mysteriously ill while on vacation in Chile. After returning home to California, you discover you have a ciguatoxin poisoning from sushi you had eaten months before going to Chile; while it’s not fatal, it can cause a slew of horrible health problems for up to a year, including raising and lowering blood pressure and heart rates.

You write, “I know in a way I never did before, at the most personal level, what fear of particular horrors—and anxieties about unknown horrors lurking just out of sight—feel like.” But the fear you had was of a real thing: the toxin in your system, as well as the painful symptoms it might cause. So did your fear of this real thing give you insight into the kind of fear that can be caused by a myth, a fiction? Because that is often where we talk about fear today: it’s fear driven by an exaggerated threat.

SA: What happened to me health-wise was: I got all these symptoms, and they were really unpleasant, and they were absolutely terrifying because they involved my heart, and all kinds of important parts of the body. But I never got a definitive diagnosis. I came back to America; I got all the state-of-the-art tests; I was in all these MRI and CAT scan machines and everything else. And my doctors could never one hundred percent work out what was going on. All they knew was that something was going wrong, and that my body was behaving in very weird ways.

A cousin of mine who is an infectious-disease guy out in Virginia started looking at all of my data, and he came to the conclusion that it was probably this ciguatoxin. The reason I say probably is there’s no definitive diagnosis. It’s something that may or may not exist in your system, but there are no tests for it. You reach a diagnosis by process of elimination. My cousin looked at all these symptoms, looked at the failures to diagnose anything else, and eventually said he thought I had this fish-borne neurotoxin.

It was that uncertainty that spoke to the way we’re behaving as a society at the moment. We have all these anxieties. We know there are terrorists out there. We know there are criminals out there, etcetera. But we don’t know who is going to be hurt next or when. It’s that sense of gnawing, permanent, omnipresent anxiety. As I was reporting the book, I thought my personal experience getting sick with this somewhat unknown ailment is quite similar to the communal experience that we’re going through at the moment where we live and breathe anxiety but we’re never quite sure what to be anxious about.

CM: When I was mentioning to people that I was having you back on the show to talk about fear, almost every person said, “Well, fear is just a survival mechanism. We need it to survive.” But how much does fear driving our decisions actually undermine any survival mechanism?

SA: That’s the thing. The way fear evolves—the way our brain has evolved—we have to have an ability to process risk very quickly. If you are an animal and you are the potential victim of a predator that wants to eat you, you’re going to survive much better if you can work out in milliseconds that you are under threat. You can survive much better if your body goes into survival mode without you even having to think about it.

The way we’ve evolved as animals in a survival-of-the-fittest world, we have very quick fear identification responses. And our bodies change: our brains release a whole bunch of chemicals; our heart rate changes; our blood pressure changes; the way we focus our eyes shifts—we get much more narrow in our focus. And even our muscles change: our blood is channeled into the muscles, so we literally armor ourselves up. In a moment of fear, we make our bodies harder.

All of that is good for survival in the wild. The problem is that we’re not in the wild anymore. We’re a complex, technologically based society, and the threats we face are complicated. They involve evaluating risks of climate change, for example, or evaluating the risk of nuclear war and how to prevent nuclear war, or evaluating very complicated health data.

The thing is, our brains aren’t very well equipped to do that, so we always overestimate risk. If we’re presented with a threat, no matter how remote that threat is, once it’s in our consciousness, it is there and it gnaws away, and it tends to crowd out competing emotions or competing calculations.

So if we get presented with images of fear all the time—if we turn on the TV and there are stories of crime or of terrorism, or we go onto our cell phones and our tablets and our Facebook and Twitter feeds about the local or the international event of horror of the moment—our brains get saturated with fear. Fear chemicals are released, and our bodies respond as if we’re in a state of permanent threat.

When we’re in that physical and psychological state, we don’t make nuanced decisions. We overwhelmingly go towards simplicity, which is why in this political moment someone like Donald Trump, who thrives on creating and exacerbating and magnifying fear, does very well. He gets people very scared and he taps into these veins of communal fear, and then he says, “I have an easy solution.”

It doesn’t matter how ludicrous that solution is. He can go out there and say, “I will ban all Muslims, and terrorism will be solved,” or “I will dip bullets in pigs’ blood like general Pershing, and I will collectively shoot a bunch of terrorisim suspects, and radical Islamic terrorism will be solved,” or “I will build a wall with Mexico, and suddenly all the complicated problems of mass migration will all be solved.” Those solutions, when you actually think about them, don’t make any sense at all. But if you can gin an audience up to a state of heightened fear, that audience is ready for a demagogic message. That’s what Trump does to perfection.

No, I don’t think it helps us survive in the modern world. What it does is lower our ability to make careful, sensible decisions.

CM: How much is increasing inequality leading to increasing fear? How much does the state of inequality, the wealth and income disparity in the United States, create a fertile environment for somebody like Trump to exploit fear?

SA: Tremendously, because the more inequality goes up, the more we cease to have shared experiences. If you’re in a community where people basically are going through the same life patterns and the same life experiences, it’s very easy to empathize across class lines or across race lines or across religious lines. But if you’re in an environment where there is no point of overlap—if you imagine a Venn diagram and the circles are getting further and further apart, and that point of overlap is being reduced to almost nothing—it becomes very easy to think of somebody who is a little different from you as completely different from you.

That idea of a common bond disintegrates. If you’ve got something to protect, some money in your bank account, some property of value, you get more scared of people with nothing. Because you fear—maybe rightly, maybe wrongly—that what is yours, they will want as theirs. You lock yourself down. You go into gated communities. You hire private security. You take your kids out of public schools so they’re not contaminated by the masses; you put them into elite private schools. To the maximum extent possible, you divorce yourself from the rest of the community.

I don’t believe a society as diverse as America can survive very long in a fear-based mode. At some point we’re going to have to work out a way beyond this morass that we currently find ourselves in.

In that environment, you become fearful. You become fearful of that person walking down the street who looks like they “might be up to no good.” You become fearful of that young African-American male in your white neighborhood. All of the stereotypes, all of the cliches, all of the things that over hundreds of years have developed a very destructive impact in our culture—in an age of inequality those stereotypes are magnified. In an age of inequality, those fears are magnified.

You can’t really separate it out. When I started working on this book, some of my friends were asking me, “Well, you’ve done all this work on inequality and social injustice; why are you moving to a completely different area?” And I kept explaining that this is not separate from poverty and inequality: happy, egalitarian societies tend not to be fearful. If we look at the Scandinavian economies or Iceland or Uruguay—countries that score very well on happiness measures—they also tend to have less social inequality. If we look at the countries that score much lower down on happiness measures, they tend to be countries with rampant and growing inequality. The two are very much interrelated.

CM: To what extent do you think people realize that they are making decisions—especially political decisions—out of fear?

SA: To a large extent. I was doing a lot of reporting for this book, roaming around the country, and I went to a preschool outside Salt Lake City, in a very affluent suburb in Utah. It was a Montessori school, and usually Montessori schools market themselves to parents with their liberal, perhaps touchy-feely educational philosophy. But this Montessori school was going down a different route: it was marketing its security. It had a massive wall around its play yard; the kids couldn’t see the beautiful Wasatch mountain range just outside. It had this incredibly complicated entry-exit system involving fingerprints and computer monitoring and everything else. It had a bank of computer cameras in every single room so that parents could stand in the foyer and look at computer feeds of their kids and make sure they weren’t being bullied or harassed. And it had equipped all of its teachers with bear spray just in case a predator came into the room and they had to respond on short notice.

I asked several of the parents, “Why is this so attractive to you?” They kept telling me about these images that they saw on Facebook and on local news in particular. So I said to some of them, “Look, without minimizing your sense of fear, if you just look at the numbers, the world was a way riskier place when you were growing up thirty years ago than it is today. Violent crime rates in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, were far higher than they are today.” Several of the parents responded that intellectually, they know that. Some of them even had criminal justice degrees. But they said they see it on TV and Facebook all the time, and it scares them.

One of the most illuminating interviews I did was with a young woman who had gone into a panic mode a few years back, triggered by the mass shooting at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. She had gone into an almost PTSD-like state where she kept expecting another mass shooting, and she kept watching the news, and she kept reading Facebook feeds about crime, and it made her more and more fearful. And then she said to me, “I had this awakening at some point that I couldn’t live my life like this, so I stopped watching local TV news.” I asked how that made her feel, and she said she’s felt much happier and healthier ever since—and she changed the way she behaved. She changed the way she parented: she was willing to give her kids much more leeway. She had realized that there was a disjunct between the reality—a fairly low crime rate—and the perception (fueled by media, especially social media) that crime was everywhere, and she worked out a healthier way to live.

On one level, a lot of people do have this awareness that they’re being fed something. But on another level, they’re hooked on it. It’s sort of the adrenaline rush for our age. In the 21st century, we get our rushes through triggering our fear response to the media.

CM: Why does fear lend itself, as you write it does, to top-down authoritarianism and not to people-powered democracy?

SA: Because people-powered democracy involves an element of hope. You can people-power your way to a better future if you believe in some optimistic arc of progress. If you really believe that we can make the future better, that we can do a whole bunch of things technologically or in terms of the ideas that we circulate, then you can decentralize power downwards.

But if you believe everything is bad, that everyone is a potential threat, that everyone is a potential predator, that we live in a zero-sum world where my happiness relies on somebody else’s unhappiness (and conversely: their happiness relies on them being able to take something away from me), in that environment, you’re much more willing to trade your liberties away for your security. You’re much more willing to tolerate incredible intrusions into privacy if the leaders promise security in exchange. You’re much more willing to tolerate a president that says—as Trump repeatedly said in the presidential campaign—that he would would bring back what he called “the torture” against terrorism suspects.

That fascinated me, because a core part of the Enlightenment project, going back the last two-hundred-plus years, has been this philosophical notion that there are certain inalienable human rights, and one of things that follows from that is that we don’t, as a society, condone things like torture. We just don’t do it. The harm that we do through implementing torture is so extreme that it becomes taboo. And Donald Trump didn’t just say he would bring back torture as a dirty little secret of the security state. What he said was, “I’ll do it in public.” He basically brought everybody into this grubbiness, because he told us in advance that he endorsed “the torture” in order to see whether the public would endorse him for it.

In a moment like this, where the most powerful person on Earth is talking about “the torture,” talking about the police roughing up criminal suspects, talking about wholesale deportation—that’s extraordinary. In a moment of fear, we’re willing to cede power to charismatic demagogues in a way that in normal, healthier societal moments we just wouldn’t do. If we were a healthier, happier society, if we were in a better place communally, Donald Trump would be laughed off the stage. But in an era in which we’re fearful, in an era in which we fear that our future is going to look far worse than our past, Trump becomes plausible.

We’ve seen this in different moments in history in different countries over the years, where strongman demagogues have come in and used fear to seduce an audience. We know what happens in situations like that, and it’s never good. It always—always—ends badly, because in the end, that vision of humanity is unsustainable. I believe from the core of my being that as a species, we are better than this. We might go through appalling moments of fear, but we are far better than Donald Trump gives us credit for being.

CM: You write, “Deeply authoritarian regimes, playing on the anxieties and insecurities of large numbers of voters, have in recent years been elected in Turkey, Russia, India, and many other countries.” How much is any political division driven by fear? That is, is politics a fight between those who would exploit fear and those who try to downplay any fears the voting public may have? Or is it even about competing fears?

SA: It’s a great question. In some ways, fear is the litmus test of our time. How one responds, whether or not one has a fear-based impression or a hope-based impression of community, is the great divide that determines what kinds of immigration policies we support, whether or not we’re tolerant and celebratory of sexual and gender diversity, whether or not we tolerate or fear racial diversity. On a whole bunch of levels, fear is the great divider.

If we go back to the twentieth century, there were these huge ideological debates around communism and fascism and capitalism and so on, and they defined human history for the better part of a hundred years. If you look at what’s happening at the moment and why our foreign policy is being crafted the way it is, or why our national security strategies are being crafted the way they are, increasingly it seems to me that fear is the great divider of our time.

If we cease to think about the likelihood of an event and we simply think about the horror if it were to occur, then we start making terrible policy decisions.

It doesn’t mean that people on the optimistic side of the spectrum have nothing to fear, because there clearly are things out there that are scary, are worthy of fear, and are worthy of attention. I’m not a Pollyanna; I’m not saying there are no terrorism threats or no nuclear threats, etcetera. There clearly are, and we have to think about them carefully, and we have to work out coherent, sensible policy approaches. But to base our entire life experience around a set of worst-case scenarios is soul-crushing. I don’t believe a society as diverse as America can survive very long in a fear-based mode. At some point we’re going to have to work out a way beyond this morass that we currently find ourselves in.

CM: You write, “No one people or place has a monopoly on fear-driven political rhetoric or on its legal, educational, cultural, and even medical consequences. For wherever and whenever we divide people into us and them, powerful political and psychological forces are unleashed.”

So is ‘us and them’ always a sign that fear is driving a person’s decisions? I recently had a store owner tell me that “We can’t do what they can do,” meaning that white store owners can’t do what non-whites can do, legally, when it comes to buying and selling businesses. Which isn’t true, but how much should that reveal to me that this person is living in fear and making decisions out of fear?

SA: A statement like that does tell you a lot. It tells you that there is somebody out there who is susceptible to misinformation and fake news and all these rumor mills that convince a critical number of people that their way of life is under threat. And secondly it tells you that we’re in a place where there are politicians out there willing to cater to those fears.

It would be fairly easy for a person with Trump’s political platform to use it to say, “Hey, let’s calm down a bit as a community. Let’s really have a communal discussion about how we can cross those racial and religious divides, how we can find ways to live, and live well, in diversity.” But Trump doesn’t do that. He plays to one audience. He plays very explicitly to a white and increasingly white nationalist audience, and makes minimal effort to reach out to other racial and religious demographics.

That comment that you heard the other day tells you that we’re in a place where fear is used very effectively and in all the wrong ways by a fairly large part of our political class. I don’t know how that store owner voted. But it sounds to me like this is somebody who is making decisions based around a sense of grievance, based around a sense that “things used to be better for me, and then these progressives came in and the made all these laws and other people got rights and now things aren’t so good for me.”

It comes back to that zero-sum idea, this notion that if we increase rights for other people it somehow shrinks my set of rights or somehow shrinks my economic well-being. We saw this with Jeff Sessions when he announced that DACA would be ending, and he started talking about how DACA was costing Americans hundreds of thousands of jobs. Well, it isn’t. The only way that makes sense is if you have this zero-sum idea that there are certain number of jobs out there and if DACA kids have them, homegrown red-blooded Americans don’t. Well, that’s not how an economy works. But increasingly we’ve got this notion that my gain is your loss; your gain is my loss. That’s a very destructive vision of community.

CM: How dangerous are positions driven by fear, then?

SA: Incredibly dangerous, because they’re not rational. After 9/11, there was a huge amount of polling data about where the country was. I lived in New York in September 2001; I saw the towers collapse, and it was the most terrifying experience of my life. It was the most disorienting experience of my life, and I remember in the weeks afterwards feeling under this sense of imminent peril. At a certain point you realize that we aren’t all under daily imminent peril. But when there was opinion poll data done in the months after 9/11, almost half of Americans thought it likely that in the next twelve months, they or their families would personally be victims of terrorism.

Half of Americans being personally victims of terrorism is 160 million people. But there weren’t 160 million terrorism casualties the following year. There weren’t a million. There weren’t a thousand. There were a handful of terrorism casualties in America in 2002. And that’s not to minimize, again, the risk of terrorism. But we have to put it in context. If we overestimate risks, then suddenly we find ourselves spending trillions of dollars on needless wars. Suddenly we find ourselves rubber-stamping extraordinary national security measures that shred our privacies and constitutional protections. If we cease to think about context, if we cease to think about the likelihood of an event and we simply think about the horror if it were to occur, then we start making terrible policy decisions.

The other thing we do is we start minimizing other risks that get less attention and that actually kill far more people. We put all of our political energies, for example, into responding to terrorism, but we neglect domestic gun control, when actually domestic gun attacks kill, by an order of magnitude more Americans every year than terrorism. Domestic gun attacks kill tens of thousands of Americans every single year, but we’re not putting political energy into changing that. If we put all of our energies into preventing a biological terrorism attack, then we neglect other diseases like tuberculosis and malaria and diarrhea, which kill millions of people every year.

If we’re selective in what we fear, and we concentrate all of our emotional energies on these few areas to fear, then we neglect a whole bunch of other public health issues with pretty dire consequences globally.

CM: How much does our inability to accurately calculate risk, then, drive our fear? Or is it the other way around, that fear drives our inability to accurately calculate risk?

SA: There are two feedback loops, and they both impact each other. Certainly the more fearful we get, we go into a red-alert panic mode, and our brain starts operating on a precautionary principle. I spoke to a neuroscientist at Cal Tech in Pasadena about this, and he said if something extraordinary happens, our brains don’t really have a way to measure likelihoods. If 9/11 happens, precisely because it’s unprecedented, our brains get very bad at measuring the likelihood of a followup. So we go to the worst extreme. It’s a survival mechanism. Until we can work out what’s going on, our brains basically arm us up and assume the worst case will happen. That’s a miscalculation.

If something bad happens, we overestimate risk. Same thing with an airplane crash. There are thousands of flights that go without any incident every day, but once there’s a plane crash (and every so often there will be), it dominates the headlines for days or weeks, and we assume that something bad will happen the next time we fly. So we get into a state of panic. We all do this to one extent or another. But it’s a misreading of risk.

What we’re seeing is the emergence of a party of fear, a political grouping that doesn’t have a solid ideology but realizes there are votes to be had and political hay to be made by exploiting whatever fear is the headline of the moment. That’s extraordinarily damaging to our political and cultural fabric.

The same thing happens if we are told again and again that something is risky, if there’s a huge number of television stories on local crime or on terrorism or on Ebola, let’s say. Even though we’re exposed not to the actual event itself but to reporting on the event, it’s still effective enough to change our brain chemistry. We become predisposed to become very fearful of Ebola or terrorism or crime. It doesn’t mean we’re seeing it in our neighborhoods or communities. It doesn’t mean our hospitals are suddenly saturated with Ebola victims. But it means that our brains have been given such an overdose of imagery that it serves the same effect and it makes us very fearful.

Those two feedback loops interact, and the effect is just a magnification of fear.

CM: How much is any political division, then, driven by those who accurately and those who inaccurately calculate risks?

SA: There’s been a lot of research on Trump’s support base, showing that it is inherently more authoritarian, and predisposed to authoritarian solutions to perceived problems. Trump isn’t the only one in American history, obviously, who’s played to fear. This is an age-old trick, both from the left and the right. From the right there have been people like senator Joe McCarthy; on the left, 1930s demagogues like governor Huey Long out of Louisiana. But the difference at the moment is that the presidency, the most powerful position in the United States, is now being used as a platform to promote fear and a conspiracist understanding of history.

That is extraordinarily important, because what it means is there is now a political constituency being crafted at the highest level that has fear as a motivating factor. Once there is a politician like Trump willing to open that Pandora’s box, shameless enough to go wherever fear takes his audience—once the limits are taken off, we end up in this Mad Max world where whatever is politically profitable will be used, no matter how destructive it is.

If it’s profitable to convince a large number of people that Mexicans are rapists and criminals, then let’s go down that road. If it’s profitable to glom onto the anti-vaxxing movement and say vaccines produce autism even though there’s no evidence for that, well, Trump was perfectly happy to do that because he thought there were votes to be had. If it’s profitable to say we’re going to solve terrorism by banning all Muslims, then let’s do that even if it’s completely unconstitutional.

What we’re seeing is the emergence of a party of fear, a political grouping that doesn’t have a solid ideology but realizes there are votes to be had and political hay to be made by exploiting whatever fear is the headline of the moment. That’s extraordinarily damaging to our political and cultural fabric.

CM: Why does expressing an audience’s fear seemingly work better than articulating a sense of calm? Why does fear work better than courage?

SA: A bunch of really interesting experiments in neuroscience and psychology are discovering that fear is a much stickier emotion than hope, and that once our brains have been trained to fear something or someone, we can work really had to overcome that fear (psychiatrists do it, for example, treating PTSD patients), and we can tamp it down up to a point, but it’s always there in the background ready to be re-triggered.

There was a really interesting study that some psychologists out of Chicago told me about. It was this experiment where they paired an image of a black person followed by something good, and an image of a white person followed by an electric shock. Not surprisingly, if you do that, people come to associate the whiteness with an electric shock, so they have a fear reaction when they see a white person. Then they reverse it, so now it’s the black person partnered with the electric shock and the white person triggers something good. Not surprisingly, the subjects reverse and they start fearing the image of a black person because it’s associated with an electric shock. And that’s normal. But when they then reversed again so the black person was no longer associated with the electric shock, they found something weird. Subjects still responded fearfully when they saw the image of the African-American.

All these stereotypes of violence associated with blackness are so embedded in our culture—you see it in movies, you see it in local news headlines, you see it all over the place—that they are “sticky.” That particular image is buried deep in our psyches, so even though there’s no rational reason in that experiment to be fearful of the African-American once the electric shock had been removed, we remain fearful.

That’s an extraordinary realization, that the way our culture stereotypes, and the way we learn fear socially, is sticky. It’s extremely hard to eradicate. That’s a long answer to your question, but it turns out that the way our brains have evolved, hope is much more fragile, and inclusion as an ideal is much more fragile, than fear. So if you’re a demagogic politician and you have some intuitive realization of this, then you play to fear rather than hope, because it’s a much more powerful social bonding mechanism for your audience.

CM: You mention a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press poll that states, “As subsequently reported by George Gray and David Ropeik of the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health, the findings were bleak: 59% said that they had experienced depression following 9/11; 31% had difficulty concentrating, 23% suffered insomnia, and 87% felt angry.”

Do you see depression, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and anger as all symptoms of living in fear? Are the angry, depressed, daydreaming, and sleepless suffering from fear? I fear I might be suffering from fear.

SA: We all are. Writing the book was meditative. I wasn’t trying to say I was immune from all of this. By virtue of the environment we live in, by virtue of the media that we absorb every day, and by virtue of the complexities of our modern world, we’re all caught up in this fear and this anxiety to a degree. When we look at what medicines have really taken off spectacularly in the last couple decades—not just in America but all over the world—it’s antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. We see this both in happy countries like Iceland and in much more anxious countries like the United States: that a significant percentage of people are taking anti-anxiety medications on a daily basis, and another significant percentage are taking anti-depression medications.

Partly that’s just because those medications are available now and they weren’t available a hundred years ago. But it also has partly to do with the fact that we are increasingly anxious and increasingly driven, in many ways, by our fears. And we live in a world that is so fast-paced and so complicated that it’s extremely hard to understand and navigate.

Again, I’m not excluding myself from that. Oftentimes I look at what’s happening around me and I get overwhelmed. Or I think how complicated the world is and I don’t understand it; I don’t understand the computer I’m using or the cellphone I’m using. Usually I just take all that stuff for granted, but every so often I think: what is this infrastructure that I rely on? And it’s a little bit overwhelming. As we all become more and more tied in to this increasingly complicated, remote world, one of the consequences is that anxiety spikes.

There’s no easy fix for that. If I were a doctor and I were seeing anxious patients, I would probably end up prescribing lots of anti-anxiety medications, because it’s certainly easier than sitting down with that patient for an hour or two or three and having a long conversation about what’s making them anxious, or what’s making them feel insecure or fragile. But oftentimes those longer conversations are much more productive than simply asking somebody to pop a few pills.

CM: Sasha, thank you so much for being back on This is Hell!, I really appreciate it.

SA: Thanks, Chuck, take care.

Featured image source: Barak Hardley’s art blog. Their rendering in ink of this horrifying and nonexistent creature:

Scroll to Top