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Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
April 18, 2024 ·  10 min read

The Weapon Of Fear: How Fear May Manipulate People

Have you ever stopped to think about how fear affects you? How often do you make decisions based on fear rather than rational thought?

Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said:

“Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear” [1].

Others are constantly using what scares us to influence how we behave. Society tells us what to do, and we listen for fear of being outcasts. We behaved the way our parents taught us for fear of punishment. We did what our teachers told us for fear that we would be kicked out of school.

Companies manipulate our insecurities so we buy their products. Politicians persuade us to vote for them by making us fear the opposition. Religious leaders throughout history have convinced people to listen to them for fear of eternal condemnation.

Fear is an incredibly powerful tool. It can be used to protect us, but can also be used to manipulate and harm us. Learning how to respond to fear in a productive way will help us to control its influence in our lives.

Why Do We Fear?

Fear has played an important evolutionary role in the lives of human beings. It is more than just an emotion. It’s a mental and physical response to the threat of danger. If our ancestors had not had the ability to feel fear, they would not have been able to protect themselves from legitimate threats, which often had life-or-death consequences.

Protecting themselves from an attack by a wild animal, for example, was crucial to early humans’ survival. If they had not done this, humans would not have continued to exist as a species.

Today, we don’t often experience these types of life-threatening situations. Our mechanism for fear, however, still exists. For example, feeling nervous before a big presentation is normal. The consequences of that situation aren’t as dire as say, having a run-in with a bear, but the fear still exists. This fear is what pushes you to prepare adequately for that moment.

Fear to Phobia

When that fear is persistent, specific to a certain threat, or impairs your life, it becomes a phobia. A phobia has crossed the line from enhancing performance or keeping you safe to preventing you from living your life. Typically, this fear is disproportionate to the actual amount of danger the object or situation poses [2].

Fear, then, is caused by a particular set of stimuli, or triggers. Your fear, however, can be present both before and after the stimulus. 

For example, let’s say you’re afraid of spiders. When you walk into an old barn, you believe that spiders could be in the room, so you’re afraid before you even see any insects. A spider then lands on your arm, and you experience fear. You brush it off and run out of the barn. For the next several minutes, every time you feel something brush your arm, you jump in fright, thinking it could be another spider.

This is what makes fear different from a reflex. You learn what you should fear and what you should not [3].

Read: Exercises to Make Your Lungs Strong to Fight COVID-19

Tribalism and Fear

The spider example highlights one important aspect of fear: we learn it from experience. Perhaps you’ve been in an old barn before and seen spiders, so you knew to be afraid as soon as you walked into the barn. 

We also, however, learn fear from observation. Perhaps you witnessed your friend walk into an old barn and have a run-in with a spider. After seeing this, you became aware that it could happen to you, too.

Learning From Those More Experienced

Learning from our own species has been an evolutionary advantage because it stopped us from repeating the same dangerous or even deadly mistakes of our ancestors. In this way, fear is adaptive. The elders of our tribe tell us not to eat the mushrooms in the woods because one of their tribemates did so and died. 

They learned that those mushrooms are dangerous, and passed that knowledge on to younger generations. The younger ones then trust them. Why? Because they’re afraid of dying themselves [4].

In this case, fear is productive. On the flip side, however, tribalism can also exacerbate fear. It can make people more emotional, and therefore less logical. A great example of this is when fans of a sports team pray that their team will win. Logically, these people likely understand that God has no interest in who wins the match, but their fear of losing supersedes that logic.

While this is a lighthearted example, fear in the presence of tribalism can become much more problematic when individuals use it to manipulate people. Throughout history, individuals and leaders have used the “us versus them” mentality to turn entire societies against a minority group. They have convinced them that they should be afraid of “the others”.

One common example of this kind of manipulation is convincing people that they should fear immigrants, who are coming here to sell drugs, rob us, or take our jobs. In the vast majority of cases, this is simply not true, but it is easy to use tribalism as a way to convince us that it is [5].

Read: What if we’ve all been primed?

The Politics, Fear, and Manipulation

Fear-mongering is a classic tool in politics. After all, if you can make the voters afraid of what might happen if your opponent wins, they’ll have no other option but to vote for you, right?

This tactic has been used time and time again. In his 1964 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson said that Barry Goldwater would lead the US into a nuclear holocaust. In 1988 George Bush suggested that Michael Dukakis would allow murderers to have weekend passes from prison [6].

While some of these claims seem too outlandish to believe, research says that they work. This is because most of our judgments and behaviors stem from subconscious thought. This subconsciousness comes just as much from emotion and instinct (if not more) as it does from logic. 

You Brain Looks For It

Essentially, your brain is constantly looking out for danger. For this reason, when we sense danger, we don’t take the time to logically think things through. We react quickly to that threat in order to stay alive another day.

In our modern world, one of the biggest fears that many of us share is the fear of losing control. Many of us are afraid of falling behind financially, because it would remove our autonomy to make our own decisions about our lives. This makes us feel powerless.

Because humans are social creatures, when we feel this sense of powerlessness we tend to turn toward our tribe for support. In doing so, we adopt the beliefs of the tribe so that we remain in good standing with them.

For this reason, it is easy for politicians to appeal to our sense of fear. Buying into the fear beliefs of the tribe makes you feel safe. This approach capitalizes on both our fear of threat, and our tendency to turn to our tribe to protect ourselves [6].

COVID-19 and Fear

The COVID-19 pandemic exemplified the human response to fear in a way few of us have ever seen before. The threat of a contagious disease occupies a significant amount of our thoughts when it was previously the furthest thing from our minds.

Our news feeds are now filled with death tolls and infection rates. There are now hundreds of thousands of voices on the internet telling you what you should and shouldn’t be doing to protect yourself. Once-mundane activities, like grocery shopping or riding the bus, are now seen as life-threatening.

Throughout history, disease would have been one of the most prominent threats to human survival. For this reason, we have developed what Mark Schaller at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver calls “the behavioral immune system”.

Unlike your actual immune system, which responds to disease, the behavioral immune system refers to anything that prevents you from getting sick in the first place [7].

Part of this system is the disgust response. This is when we avoid things that appear unclean in order to prevent contact with a potential contagion. This is why when someone coughs next to you, your first instinct is to move away from them.

Unfortunately, this system relies on a “better safe than sorry” type of logic, so responses can often be misplaced. This can cause us to develop opinions or make decisions about something that has nothing to do with the current threat.

And where does this all stem from? Fear. 

This can have far-reaching effects. Studies have shown that in the presence of fear, individuals are more likely to conform to societal expectations [8]. This, of course, can be a good thing when those expectations refer to safety measures. It can be problematic when they refer to broader ideas of non-conformity, such as how someone chooses to dress or do their hair.

In the case of the novel coronavirus, fear of contagion can make you more likely to do things like wearing a mask and to maintain social distancing. This is good because it can help keep you and others safe. It becomes an issue when your fear causes you to become distrusting or hostile to anyone who appears to be different, regardless of whether or not they’re also following safety procedures.

Related: Opinion: Why Fearing the Coronavirus Should be the Least of Your Worries

Fear Spreads Misinformation

When fear is a factor, misinformation can spread like wildfire. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a perfect example of this. In the age of social media, unverified stories and accounts of the virus from around the world have proliferated at an uncontainable rate.

“When there’s a lack of information and there’s fear, rumours come in to fill that gap,” said Alfred Hermida, professor and director of the journalism program at the University of British Columbia [9].

He explains that people are sharing this information because they are trying to make sense of what is an extremely complicated situation. 

“The danger is that it spins out of control, because fear then takes over,” he added [9]. 

Ramona Pringle is the director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She says that anything health-related is a challenge online because it’s highly emotional.

“It speaks to our primal instincts about survival that people panic, people have an emotional reaction to it,” she explained [9].

Unfortunately, verified and factual information rarely gets the same traction online, because it doesn’t elicit strong emotion from viewers. The headlines and Tweets that play into our fears, however, get shared hundreds of thousands of times. This can have multiple consequences including proliferating racism, causing widespread panic, and hoarding.

Think Before You Fear

Fear can be an intense instinctual reaction that is difficult to overcome. At a time like this, however, when much of the world is consumed with fear, it is important that we think before we react, or hit that “share” button.

When you read a headline that evokes an emotional reaction from you, ask yourself where that emotion is coming from. Is it because you are afraid? What specifically about that situation scares you? Where is this information coming from? Can I trust that source, or are they attempting to use my fear to manipulate my thinking?

Fear can be helpful. With respect to the coronavirus, it can motivate us to take the necessary safety precautions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. It can, however, also be used to spread messages of hate and misinformation. At a time like now, when we are all feeling vulnerable, it is easy for governments, organizations, and corporations to capitalize on that insecurity.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by fear, be sure to talk to someone. Now more than ever we need to be open and supportive of one another.

Keep Reading: ‘I Don’t Want to Die Because You Don’t Like Masks’