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December 17, 2012

How can we defend ourselves against those who try to control us by creating fear?

The competition for our attention
Nowadays, we are confronted with more information and opinions than ever before and much more than we can possibly process. All these streams of information compete for our attention. And since our attention is a rather limited resource that competition is fierce. It appears that we are more sensitive to some types of information than to others. A well-documented psychological phenomenon is the negativity bias which says that people pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information. Negative information captures our attention more easily than positive information. Thus, newspapers, TV stations, special interest groups, and politicians seeking money and power by seeking our attention may benefit from presenting us with negative information.

What happens when negative information reaches us?
The amygdala is a brain system which plays an important role in the automatic detection of threats. When there is an immediate threat the amygdala helps to narrow your focus so that you may take immediate action in order to save yourself from the threat. While doing that the amygdala may override other cognitive functions which are less directly related to the process of protecting yourself. While there is a direct threat the ability to process information rationally is to some extent suppressed. For instance, our thinking becomes less nuanced.

The way this works is quite useful when there is indeed an immediate threat. It may keep us alive. After a threat has been removed or dissolved, the amygdala 'cools' down and we get back to our normal state of mind. However, if the process of arousing the amygdala and thereby suppressing our rationality happens when there is only an imaginary threat, this is likely to be harmful. For instance, it appears that the amygdala cannot differentiate well between an actual, immediate threat and a potential, probabilistic threat. A probabilistic threat is a threat which may or may not materialize. The problem with a probabilistic threat is that it may keep our amygdala’s aroused for a long time even when they never become reality. Some probabilistic threats may be very realistic others may be completely illusionary. Whenever we illusionary probabilistic threats get a grip on us we may often be in a state of high vigilance and low rationality.

Hyper-vigilance and suppressed rationality
As I wrote in this post, dictators create fear in order to control their peoples: "The threat of war seems like the fuel on which tyranny runs. Whenever non-democratic leaders face opposition from the people they attempt to neutralize this by creating fear and control. The reliable way to do this is to create the threat of war with self-created external enemies [or hell and doom]. This way they legitimatize the enforcement of loyalty. This may explain why dictators often routinely use a language of hate and violence up to the point of threatening to wipe out complete nations." Not only is the threat creating a legitimation of the use of violence, it also seems to function as a means to suppress rational thinking.

Media and politicians who use fear as means to get attention may set in motion a cynical cycle of success. In order to acquire or maintain power, sell newspapers, get viewers, get funds, people may send out information about some kind of threat. By doing that they get attention, create fear and suppress rational thinking. In order to keep this process going they will have to keep on spreading information about this threat thereby keeping their target group hyper-vigilant and irrational.

Three questions
Instead of pointing fingers to specific politicians, religious leaders, newspapers, or TV stations, or giving you advice about how to avoid falling prey to people who try manipulate you by creating fear, I'd like to end this post by asking a few questions:
  1. Do you think that what I have written is here is valid? I welcome you to point out any factual mistakes I may have made. 
  2. Do you think that what I have written here is relevant for you? If so, how?
  3. If you generally agree with what I have written here, what effective ways have you found (or can you think of) to deal with this?