I have a habit of collecting far more books than I can possibly read, so I always have a large stack of books just waiting to be read. I prefer to keep these books out of sight so I don’t feel the sense of obligation that these unread books confer. I tuck them all into a box in the bottom of my closet and whenever I’m ready to read a new book, I reach in and fish one out. Recently, the book that I drew out of the pile was a book by Dan Gardner called Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear.
This was a great find and an excellent look at the psychology of the human mind and how we are drawn to (and often easily manipulated by) fear. The book was published originally in 2008, but it was fascinating to read it today against the backdrop of England’s “Brexit” from the European Union and Donald Trump’s political campaign.
As I write this article, just a day after the Brexit vote, there are mixed feelings and some who rue the decision to leave the EU. One writer described it as “a day when prejudice, propaganda, naked xenophobia, and callous fear-mongering have won out over common sense.”
Many people have linked the recent occurrences in Europe to the rise of Donald Trump, who runs on a campaign fueled by fear. From Trump’s perspective, we live in a terrifying world where rapists and terrorists are streaming into the country, and we need more guns and more walls to keep them out.
Most people (at least in my liberal circles) never expected the Brexit referendum to pass and certainly never expected Donald Trump to achieve the presidential nomination. But clearly, political tides are changing and campaigns based on fear appear to be resonating with growing numbers of people.
Drawing from Gardner’s book on Risk, I can see three clear reasons why the politics of fear seem to be winning:
- Negativity Bias. To a certain extent, the politics of fear has always worked because humans are wired to be drawn towards the negative in any situation. People simply give more attention to the threats and the challenges than they do to what is working well. The best way to sell anything (whether it is a product or an idea) is to highlight the threats that are awaiting those who don’t buy what you are peddling.
- The Example Rule Bias. Our minds evolved in a time when we were not constantly bombarded with sensationalistic news stories about terrorism, crime, and economic catastrophe. The way the mind evaluates a potential risk is by assessing how easy it is to recall an example of it. If an example comes to mind easily, we ratchet up the alert systems. The problem in today’s world is that there is a 24/7 global media machine serving up daily examples of everything horrible that is happening everywhere in the world. Even people that have never personally experienced a terrorist attack, violent crime, or a natural disaster, can easily recall examples and so we remain on high alert to these possibilities (perhaps at the expense of responding to other more statistically dangerous, but less sensational threats.)
- Group Polarization. We might assume that if a group of people with opposing viewpoints comes together to discuss a topic, the views would become more moderate as each person understands more from the other side. According to Gardner, “decades of research has proved that groups usually come to conclusions that are more extreme than the average view of the individuals who make up the group.” It would be nice to think that having the internet as a platform for global discussion, dialogue and debate would help us to get closer to the universal truths around any particular issue. Unfortunately, it seems to only drive people towards more extremist ideas in one direction or another.
Succumbing to the allure of fear means giving in to the mental biases we all have due to our slowly evolving brains living in a rapidly evolving world. According to Gardner, breaking free from these biases is incredibly difficult. But when we manage to do so, we better understand the true threats we are confronting, we find better solutions, and we live more enjoyable lives released from the shadow of fear.
The politicians always want you to believe that we are on the brink of disaster. Only with their help can we survive. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in reality, the world is safer and better than ever before. If it doesn’t seem that way, it may just be your mind (or your politicians) playing tricks on you.
Reading and recommended resources:
Gardner, D. (2009). Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Virgin Books.