Fear is often used to control us—but we can also use it to make better decisions

The rage.
The rage.
Image: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
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When we have to make split-second decisions, fear is a constructive and potentially life-saving guide. Do I break quickly at the sight of a fast-approaching car? Do I run at the sound of footsteps behind me on this deserted street?

When applied to complex social issues, however, fear can mislead us. This is precisely why politicians use it so abundantly in their rhetoric, often to the point of fear-mongering. Just pick a reason to panic, and politicians will harp on it: terrorism, immigrants, minorities, crime, economic recession, foreign countries, foreign people. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are quick to add each other to that list.

As behavioral scientists studying the drivers of judgment and decision-making, we believe that it is possible to turn this situation around so that fear becomes a tool for improving, not biasing, the way we make choices.

To explain, we must first look at how fear operates.

Fear works subconsciously

We are hardwired to pick up on signs in our environment that suggest a threat to our welfare. As a defense mechanism, fear was designed to improve our chances of survival. This was vital when we were hunting and gathering in the wild, yet in today’s complex and rapidly evolving information landscape, fear often makes us vulnerable to manipulation.

In his book The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux tells a story that reveals how fear operates at a subconscious level. The 20th-century physician Claparède was treating a patient who had lost the ability to create new memories due to a brain injury (much like the main character in Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento). Every time they met, the patient perceived their meeting as the very first. At the beginning of one session, Clarapède decided to play a prank: He shook the patient’s hand while holding a tack in his palm, thereby pricking her. Next time they met, she did not recognize him, as usual; but this time she refused to shake his hand.

Much like a drug, fear works beyond our conscious control. Using fear-mongering to advance political agendas or to fire up voters’ support thus constitutes an abuse of emotions and an offense against the human intellect. It is no different from drugging someone to physically take advantage of him or her.

Fear warps thinking

By creating a state of emergency in our psyche, fear distracts us from the relevant facts on which we should base our conscious decisions. A fight-or-flight instinct kicks in instantaneously when we’re afraid, leaving no time for us to question its merits. The resulting knee-jerk reaction often leads to a short-term solution that only tackles the symptoms. This act-first-think-later approach, however, doesn’t address underlying causes.

While alerting us of a danger we may face, fear simultaneously strips us of the ability to think rationally about it. Cass Sunstein, one of several prominent behavioral scholars who has extensively studied and written about fear’s effects on judgment, calls this syndrome “probability neglect.”

For example, a study published by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development estimates that at least a thousand additional lives were lost in US road accidents in the year following the attacks of 9/11. This was thought to be because, fearing another air-bound terrorist attack, many people chose to drive instead of fly. Michael L. Rothschild, an emeritus professor at University of Wisconsin Business School, calculated that the probability of death due to inflight terrorism to be 1 in 540,000—and that was assuming a hijacking rate of one per month. On the other hand, he estimated the probability of dying from a car accident to be 1 in 7,000.

When making a decision between flying and driving, the news of a recent hijacking likewise hijacks intuition, leading decision makers to focus on the unlikely but horrific outcome while completely ignoring the actual underlying probabilities. Emotions take over and we tend to become biased by the immediately available (and extreme) evidence. In other words, fear of dying led people to their deaths.

Fear is self-fulfilling

Fear perpetuates fear, and citizens can find themselves in a vicious and potentially violent cycle.

In society, cultivating fear of a minority, a race, or an ethnicity will likely lead to the very outcome that is being feared. Stereotypes ensue, and the feared becomes fearful. Tensions then escalate until a point where conflicts erupt that further reinforces the initial fears.

Those who stoop to scaring people into making decisions don’t always have to come up with credible solutions—hearing politicians frequently mention terrorism does not guarantee that they can provide effective solutions to this complicated issue. Instead, fear will be enough to paralyze people’s ability to reason and convince them to embrace whatever the supposed solution is, which often comes in the shape of restrictive laws, diminished personal rights, real or metaphorical walls, authoritative leaders, and worse, wars.

The solution

We need to develop a fear-dar: a radar to detect political manipulation through fear. Neuroscientists have suggested that acknowledging an emotion and explicitly identifying fear can help manage its subsequent effects on our behavior. Hence, we need to develop an emotional radar that triggers a mental alarm when we experience fear during a decision-making process. When dealing with political and social issues, people need to learn to associate feelings of fear with the need to slow down, reflect, and assess their options rationally rather than succumbing to impulsive reactions.

If we all employed this sort of mechanism, we could learn to turn quickly recognize signs of manipulation. Whenever public discourse triggers fear and an urge to protect ourselves, a red flag would go up in our minds signaling that we are about to fall prey to fear-mongering.

Fear awareness also helps identify and reveal the source of emotional manipulation. Worthy leaders should strive to calm the public in a situation of panic—they shouldn’t intentionally fuel the flame to consolidate power. A mental fear-dar could therefore help voters discredit those who arouse fear and reward leaders who have the potential to serve them better.

Approaching fear in such a constructive manner would also incentivize leaders to cater to citizens’ real needs. It would push them to generate credible and sensible solutions to grab voters’ attentions, rather than inciting mind-numbing emotions.

Those who seek political office or power will use fear to advance their agenda for as long as it works. It therefore becomes citizens’ responsibilities to guard their emotions and their decisions against it. While we cannot escape experiencing fear—our palms will always sweat as we enter a dark, unfamiliar room—we can control how we react to it.