When Fear Spreads, People Divide

Fear has been one of the major underlying forces of evolution since the dawn of time. It can motivate us, dissuade us, anger us and traumatize us. Whether it incites anxiety on an individual level, drives a large crowd into chaotic panic, or keeps entire segments of society away from airports and movie theaters after isolated (albeit horrific) events, fear is a reflex impossible to escape and difficult to manage. Machiavelli surmised that fear is stronger than love, and that a person will always be controlled by their base instinct toward self-preservation. Unfortunately, there are many instances of this philosophy coming to fruition. There are some examples, however, of people overcoming the natural concern for their own safety in order to ensure the survival of others. Fear is a powerful and unpredictable force observed in the human and animal kingdoms alike, and all living creatures respond to it differently.

But how does fear manifest itself, and why is it so difficult to overcome even when we know it’s irrational? The short answer is that our brains have developed triggers to ensure we experience fear as a survival mechanism. Our amygdalae, two small structures deep within our temporal lobes, are programmed to assess threats and force us to pay attention to them. Fear creates a natural, physical response that includes an elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, contracted muscles and general tension throughout the body. This is commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response, and with very few exceptions, we all experience it when a threat presents itself. Of course, whether or not we experience it isn’t in our power to control, but how we respond to it can be, and some people have made a career out of conquering the urge to flee from trouble. These people include firefighters, police officers, soldiers, fighters, and rescue workers of all kinds.

But those individuals are so often exalted because, to the rest of us, overcoming the sort of fear they experience seems almost unnatural. In many ways, it is. The human brain is programmed from a very early stage to recognize and respond to fear. Almost as soon as we’re able to use our eyes, we’re programmed to recognize and evaluate faces. We inherently understand the difference between a kind, welcoming facial expression and an angry, threatening one. It is why, as adults, if we see a person suddenly become agitated or filled with fear, our attention is drawn to them immediately, and we’re concerned about the possibility of danger even if we’re not able to recognize an immediate threat. As human beings, we are incredibly susceptible to fear, and most of us are strongly repelled by it.

It’s no surprise, then, that science has uncovered evidence which suggests that fear is literally contagious. This works on a small scale, as in the example above, but also as a true contagion, spreading over entire societies and inducing irrational hysteria and panic. Often, the backlash of a frightened society is limited to its collective psyche, without manifesting itself in destruction or violence. Other times, when a perceived threat is deemed imminent, large groups of people can turn hostile toward one another and cause physical devastation on a mass scale. It is for this reason that fear is a primary tactic of warring peoples, and why terrorists operate with a very particular modus operandi, seeking not only to take lives but also to spread fear and panic among a population to stop it from functioning properly. It is an effective tactic because fear is a base reflex, controlling our behavior even when we know our fears are irrational.

Before 9/11, for instance, there had been only a handful of airliners hijacked in the United States, and none that were used in such horrific and calculated suicide attacks. Afterward, airport security was increased, but people were still afraid to fly. Most of us sympathize with this fear and perhaps even felt it ourselves, but in analyzing it dispassionately we tend to come away thinking we simply fell prey to a very primal and largely irrational instinct toward self-preservation.

Beyond terrorism, fear can be used by the media or as a political tool to sway voter turnout or gain support for a particular policy decision. Because fear stems largely from the unknown, it’s easy to manipulate masses of people who have little choice but to accept that there is something happening, somewhere, which they have no way of knowing about, and which poses a serious threat to their safety. Unfortunately, when media steps into that void and tells us to be afraid, it’s very difficult not to lend it credence, creating a culture of fear and ignorance which spreads like a disease.

Of course, fear can manifest itself in a number or ways, and isn’t always linked directly to our survival or physical safety. The anxiety and worry we feel about our professional lives, for instance, ultimately stems from the fear of the unknown consequences which might come with losing that livelihood. In extreme instances, when fear is not dealt with in a healthy and rational way, a legitimate source of anxiety or concern can transform to outright phobia and deteriorate into an all-consuming source of stress, impossible to manage. Something as simple as a spider, for instance, can leave otherwise strong-minded individuals shrieking like helpless children.

The question is not whether we will experience fear, as we all surely must and will throughout the course of our lives, but how we respond to it and whether we find it in ourselves to overcome it. However, whenever possible, it is important to recognize when our fears are irrational and when fear is being used as a tool to coerce us into making foolish decisions.

Feature photo courtesy of Georgie Pauwels.