Revisiting: Politics and Fear

The fastest way to dumb down a population is to scare them

Whipping up fear is a common tactic in politics. Providing stark, seemingly life or death choices, us versus them, scapegoating, creating a false bogeyman to distract from real problems, using lies and disinformation … fear is used because it often works.

The invoked fear is often based on racism and bias. It’s those “other people”–with a different skin color, from another place, who follow a different religion, who speak a different language, who support a different political party–minorities, immigrants, the poor, the old, the young, anyone who is different … they are trying to take away something, something that may never have existed or something that the authoritarian has already taken or would like to take away.

Fear breeds anxiety and stress, and “anxiety increases the attention to negative choice options, the likelihood that ambiguous options will be interpreted negatively, and the tendency to avoid potential negative outcomes, even at the cost of missing potential gains.”

What does this mean? Why does fear work? Fear pushes people to see only the negative, to judge negatively even positive or neutral options, and to even act against their own best interests in order to avoid a suggested calamity.

Fear is corrosive; fear is the friend of dictators and authoritarian/totalitarian governments.

But, fear is also a state that we help create within ourselves. Just as we can allow fear to build and affect our lives, we can also disrupt it (though it is not easy to do that in times of high anxiety). One way to beat fear is through knowledge and understanding. Dig through the slogans and disinformation, get to the facts.

The next time you see an apocalyptic political advertisement on TV, hear an incendiary speech, read a post or tweet that grabs your emotions … before you do anything–stop, take a step back, and think:

  • What are they trying to get you to do?
  • What is their (politician, political party or organization) ultimate motivation?
  • Are the words and images shown real or taken out of context/faked?
  • Does the implication of the advertisement, speech or tweet match reality? For example, are they implying rampant crime and violence when the actual statistics show crime has gone down? Are they promising big economic gains for all when history and statistics show only the rich have benefited?
  • Do you get any tangible, real benefit by doing what they say? Or, are you actually giving up something (freedoms, civil rights, income, your vote, privacy, etc.) and all or most of the benefit goes to them?

Make your own decisions; do not let them/others make decisions for you.

Go to a source:

Hartley, C. A., & Phelps, E. A. (2012). Anxiety and decision-making. Biological Psychiatry, 72(2), 113-118. [PDF] [Cited by]

See also —

Revisiting: Scapegoats and self-blame

Fear — impacts on decision-making and behavior

Understand the context of information important to you; reduce the fear and anxiety

Clues to deception; who is telling the truth?

You have the power to make your own decisions about issues important to your life–use it!

Who do you believe?

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu)

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