Manufactured and irrational fear
Much of today's fear is either irrational or manufactured by the news media and others who have ulterior motives. Fear is used to sway the way you think and behave. Do not base your self-defense training upon these fears.
People fear serial killers, mass murderers, and disease outbreaks; things that rarely occur. Yet they smoke, drink obsessively, eat until they are obese, and drive on the highways without thinking about the danger.
From 2007-2013, 934 people were killed by mass murderers in the United States, while 244,323 people died as a result of highway accidents. Over the seven years, for each person killed in a mass murder, 261 people died on the highways. Yet some tell us that mass murders are epidemic, and we should all fear for our lives. In the last few decades, there have been less than 50 unprovoked shark attacks in the United States, yet if you watch the news, you should fear for your life each time you enter the ocean.
Sociologists often refer to fears that are shared by a group as “moral panics.” Many of, if not most, moral panics are manufactured by the news media and others with ulterior motives.
Manufactured fear is nothing new. In 1878, a New York Times editorial suggested that Thomas Edison had “invented too many things” and that “something ought to be done to Mr. Edison, and there is a growing conviction that it had better be done with hemp rope.” In the 1800s, the media characterized playing chess as antisocial, dangerous, and leading to violent behavior.
Why are people so susceptible to manufactured fear? According to risk perception expert David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, “The human brain is a survival machine, not a figure-it-out computer. After you wake up in the morning, its primary job is to get you safely to bed at night, not to get good grades or discover something.” To do this, the brain relies on what neuroscientist Dr. Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, refers to as “threat-triggered defense responses,” the clammy hands, goosebumps, weak knees, and other sensations that we associate with fear.
These defense responses have nothing to do with reason. The part of the brain that detects danger, the amygdala, is simply a switch that flips on so that the body may react immediately to a potential threat. Because of its location in the brain, it receives sensory information before the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. This means that the body will go into fight-flight-or-freeze mode before our rational minds can figure out what is happening.
The news media tries to tap into this fear response because it does not interact with the rational mind. They do not want you to think about what you are seeing and hearing. Scary headlines and disturbing images are designed to grab your interest before your rational mind tells you to move on. Dr. Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology and the lead researcher of the Chapman University Survey on American Fears, says that “People often don’t realize that when they’re watching the news, they’re watching the worst possible scenario. That’s why it’s news. A serial killer gets airtime because he’s rare, not because serial murders are on the rise.”
It takes about four hours for the body to recover completely from fright and to settle into a normal, healthy state. So, for good health, fear needs to be controlled. Experiencing an isolated scare, such as a rattling sound coming from the grass while walking in the woods, is healthy since it helps us survive, but a constant fear of some uncommon threat, such as mass murder, is unhealthy. It can cause chronic stress and anxiety, prolonged defense responses such as high blood pressure, suppressed immune system, impaired memory, and abnormal hormone levels, and it may lead to an increased risk of clinical depression.
Irrational fear may also lead us to make poor decisions based upon either worrying too much or not worrying enough. An example of worrying too much is when people who are afraid of flying decide to drive instead, which is statistically riskier. An example of not worrying enough is people who text while driving.
Irrational fear may also lead to dangerous social choices. We spend more money on research on cancer than we do on heart disease, which is a bigger threat. This is because heart disease doesn’t scare us as much as cancer. Heart disease deaths are relatively quick, so pain is of short duration, while cancer deaths are prolonged and painful. We fear how we may die more than we fear death itself.
Nowadays, mass murderers prefer using guns for their killings. Each time guns are used, the media and others with ulterior motives attempt to stir up public outcry that guns are the problem; not the people committing the murders. If there were no guns, would mass murders decrease? No! The mass murderers would simply use other means that they have used for centuries–explosives and fire.
Sometimes moral panic is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if a park is wrongly rumored to harbor dangerous drug dealers, all the regular visitors to that park stay away, and eventually, drug dealers start using the park.
Dealing with fear
While constant news media exposure may manufacture unfounded fears, not all fears are unfounded. Many legitimate fears just do not seem immediate enough for us to fear them. People do not fear not having enough money in retirement because that is in the distant future and they are having too much fun spending money in the present. Diseases that take years to develop, such as lung cancer and emphysema, do not concern smokers whose only concern is attaining immediate pleasure.
Since there are violent criminals in the world, we should all have basic training on self-defense, but this training need not be a lifelong endeavor. The chances of a person having to defend himself or herself are slim, so spending too much time training for this remote possibility is a waste of time and money that could be used more productively. However, if you enjoy self-defense training, then many years of training, whether you ever need to defend yourself or not, were not a waste of time since you gained years of enjoyment.
When processing media newscasts, we need to remember that 24/7 news networks need to fill the broadcast hours with something, and they want to keep you watching so you will also watch their commercials. Remember newscasts are designed to entertain as well as to inform, so facts are not that important to the news media.
We need to learn to give facts more weight in our decision-making. When fear sets in, try to let your rational brain come forward as the voice of reason.
- Rhodes. M. (2015). What Are You Afraid Of? Parade magazine. January 15, 2015.