Listen time: 10 mins

A culture of fear

The ability to feel fear and respond to fear in dangerous situations is a characteristic of our ancestors – the ones who survived. Fear, then, became a characteristic that was reliably passed on to future generations.

This is the argument of the authors of an article titled Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning, who suggest by saying “Because early humans that were quick to fear dangerous situations were more likely to survive and reproduce, preparedness is theorized to be a genetic effect that is the result of natural selection.”

Rational fear is good because it warns you of danger and keeps you safe. As motivations go, it’s one that works on most of the people most of the time. In fact, it’s such a reliable motivator that it’s been used by political and religious leaders since recorded history to keep everyone where the people at the top want them to be.

Nazi leader Hermann Göring is quoted as saying in conversation with author Gustave Gilbert in his cell in Nuremburg “The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” 

We may be more savvy than we were in the 1930s, but I’d like you to think about the ways that you may be being manipulated through your subconscious responses to fear.

What frightens you?

How do you feel about spiders or snakes? How about rats or cockroaches? Do you ever worry about germs on your kitchen surfaces? What about being laughed at by people whose opinions you value? How would you feel about being forcibly removed from your home and made to live on the street? Once you were living on the street, how do you think you’d feel about strangers kicking or assaulting you on your makeshift bed on the sidewalk while you slept? What about death? Do you feel frightened at the prospect of dying? Of loved ones dying? Or suffering?

When you respond to the advert for kitchen spray or income protection insurance, you’re being maneuvered into buying something which is probably a good idea anyway. But where do you draw the line? Is it still a good idea to listen to that little voice when you’re responding to the political advertisement with the tagline “keeping our borders safe” which presumably means, from people who aren’t like you? Or the expensive new car that you probably can’t afford, that’s equipped with new-generation safety features, guaranteed to keep your family safe? Or the expensive, invasive weight-loss surgery that will help you lose the unattractive middle-age spread that you haven’t been able to shake?

It can be easy to mistake fiction for reality

Fear doesn’t only make us behave predictably, it also makes us behave irrationally. When fearful messages are repeated often enough, they contribute to a culture of fear and when there’s enough of that going around, people start turning on each other and looking for reasons to doubt the motives of everyone, including the people who are trying to help them.

An example of this is some people’s resistance to being vaccinated for COVID-19.

It’s not hard to imagine what a culture of fear looks like, because it’s what you’d call the deceptive, sensational, divisive click bait headlines we see in our social media feeds and the sensational, divisive news headlines we see on our TV screens. It’s the subject of the blockbuster movies about apocalyptic events and the crime thrillers, which are so realistic and part of our popular culture, that it’s easy to mistake them as being representative of real life.

When you’re exposed to this sort of messaging day in day out, the predictable starts to happen. You start seeing every event framed in fearful, threatening terms and it’s not inconceivable that you could start believing that that this sort of commentary is in fact news. You could also start imagining the world must be imploding on itself and everyone in it, doomed to disaster because you see so much violence, treachery and deceit online, in movies and on TV and in the true crime podcasts you can’t seem to get enough of listening to.

The thing about most of these sources, is that it’s easy to forget that they’re not real. So why is it so easy for people to imagine that they are?

We don’t always make sense of the world in logical ways

Here are just two of the ways that a climate of fear can perpetuate through our cognitive biases, or the ways in which our mental shortcuts result in flawed perceptions.

I’m quoting from The Decision Lab, with a link below.

“The negativity bias is a cognitive bias that results in adverse events having a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events. Negativity bias occurs even when adverse events and positive events are of the same magnitude, meaning we feel negative events more intensely.”

“The Bandwagon effect refers to our habit of adopting certain behaviors or beliefs because many other people do the same.”

So what’s the alternative?

Withdraw from society and become a hermit? Throw away your computer, phone and TV? How about something less radical, like educating yourself on the difference between trusted sources and the other kinds of sources and the difference between fiction and reality.

You can choose to watch shows or listen to podcasts that are constructive. Just two examples of excellent podcasts that are favourites of mine are Freakonomics which, according to their tagline, is about the hidden side of everything. And another by the same people, People I Mostly Admire, which features interviews with some truly incredible men and women.

Those are just two, but there are any number of constructive podcasts, TV shows and movies that can help you get a sense of the ways that we can be part of the solutions to societies challenges rather than resigned to our fate.

Vote with your click

Every time you watch or read content that’s morbid, sensational or divisive or take the bait by clicking on the sensational headline, you’re voting with your click.

Every click on articles like that tells YouTube, Netflix, Google or Facebook algorithms two things. Firstly, that it’s what people are interested in and want to read about or watch. Secondly, that it’s what you want to read or watch more of because it’s what you’ve clicked on.

If more people watch and demand constructive content, producers will create it and make it available. The more constructive content people click on and consume, the more of it the search algorithms will serve up to them, because that’s how its logic works.

What you can do starting today

Consider getting your news from sources that are credible, constructive and not entirely dependent on advertising revenue. Sources like the ABC in Australia or The Conversation, which is a news site with the tagline Academic rigour, journalistic flair are examples of a couple of better options, but there are plenty more.

You can’t stop people from trying to manipulate you through the normal healthy fears that make you human, but you can use your rational brain to stop yourself from behaving predictably and right into their hands.

What else you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.


Nuremburg Diary, Gustave Gilbert (1947)
Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning, Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001)