Politics and the Neuroscience of Fear
Photo Credits: Mário Macilau


By Diogo Gonçalves

“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”~António Damásio

From the fall of the Berlin Wall until recently, it was common sense in developed countries that we should avoid extremes. In the UK, the far left would never take over the Labor party. In the US, the Ku Klax Klan would never rise to power. In France, Marine Le Pen and the National Front would never constitute a threat. If they tried, sensible voters would reject them.

But on the mornings of the 24th June (Brexit) and the 9th November (Trump) of 2016, the situation changed. Many people across the globe – from Manchester to New York, from Brussels to Moscow – were (and some still are) incredulous that we seem to be shifting toward the extremes and away from common sense. There is a great deal of fear and anxiety around the planet at these developments. Research in neuroscience shows the dangerous effects of these threatening events.


The Neuroscience of Threats

As an example, consider Mary, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic. The strongest memory she retains from her childhood is of never being able to tell whether she loved her father or hated him. Some days she thought that her father loved her, others she would remember his abuse and blame him for all the stress she had to face on a daily basis.

When people like Mary live in a constant state of fear and anxiety, their prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – the thinking and memory-forming parts of the brain – start shutting down.

Simultaneously, the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for our emotional responses, specifically fear – gets bigger. This neurobiological process severely undermines our capacity for reflective decision making, calculated risk taking, and exploratory activity. It also makes us more prone to extreme, simple, and cognitively rigid solutions, and less empathetic to and understanding of views different from our own.

In 2006, psychologists George Bonanno and John Jost studied high-exposure survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They discovered that most went through a “conservative shift.” In order to manage the feelings of uncertainty and threat induced by the attacks, they moved away from liberalism towards conservatism. The authors observed that survivors embraced ideologies that “provide relatively simple yet cognitively rigid solutions (e.g., good versus evil, black versus white, us versus them, leader versus follower) to problems of security and threat.” However, the political shift didn’t improve their overall state of mind, measured in terms of mental health symptoms or friends–relatives’ ratings of their psychological adjustment.


Trump’s Rhetoric of Threats

They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They’re rapists.

This and other sentences used by Donald Trump fanned the flames of fear and anxiety, by exposing his audience to stimuli the audience found threatening. This helped shift his audience in a more conservative direction.

Moreover, eliciting fear is highly effective for potentially authoritarian leaders to reach power. These leaders depict themselves as the only solution to the fear and anger felt by the increasingly conservative audience.

Living in fear feeds itself through two extensively studied psychological conditions: probability neglect and confirmation bias. The first tells us that when people are emotionally stirred by something they can vividly imagine, such as a terrorist attack, they will fear its outcome even if it’s highly unlikely – a reaction called “misfearing.” When Donald Trump uses his speeches to talk about immigration in Europe linked it to terror attacks Brussels, Nice, and Paris, and even a non-event terrorist attack in Sweden, he is using these psychological bias to make people fear a very unlikely event (if they used a cold, rational probabilities analysis, they would conclude that the probability of dying in a terrorist attack is almost inexistent).

The second is related to the fact that the more we see something, such as TV depictions of immigrants who bring crime and drugs, the more we pay extra attention to it in the future, over time causing us to believe it is a widespread problem. I reality, from 1975 through 2015, the average chance of dying in an attack by a foreign-born terrorist on U.S. soil was 1 in 3,609,709 a year. For 30 of those 41 years, no Americans were killed on U.S. soil in terrorist attacks caused by foreigners or immigrants.


The Cycle of Fear

Thus, fear results in probability neglect and confirmation bias. These cause more fear, which leads to more probability neglect and confirmation bias, and so on.

Let’s go back to our example with Mary. As an adult, Mary is still struggling with the problems that she faced as a child. She doesn’t trust easily: how could she trust someone when her own father let her down so many times? She is closed off to love and to the world, and believes that the only person she needs to lookout for is herself.
The human brain is a stress-prone machine that responds immediately to threats. Thus, fear (the brain’s response to a specific danger) and anxiety (the response to an uncertain danger) can be used to influence behavior.

Authoritarian regimes use these tools as a leverage to gain power. These regimes manipulate people by offering them simple ways to deal with their fear and anxiety: during difficult times, the authoritarian regime only requires a scapegoat to take advantage of the limited capability of the people for exploratory decision making. Through manipulative techniques, authoritarian governments do not permit freedom of speech and look to control every aspect of the daily lives of their citizens. Examples of this type of government can still be found today, in countries like North Korea, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

How can we avoid allowing politicians to manipulate us with fear and anxiety? As individuals we can take the following proactive steps in important pre-decisional periods, such as during political campaigns:

  • Try to protect ourselves from being exposed to information that elicits fear and anxiety prior to significant decision-making about your political actions
  • If you are exposed to information that elicits fear and anxiety, notice that exposure and take time to calm down and collect ourselves (about 20 minutes should be sufficient tamp down the “fight-or-flight” response)

By slowing down the pace of our brains, we reduce the riskiness of our behaviors (including the political ones), and increase the likelihood of meaningful and rational decisions.

Questions to consider:

  • What do you think are some factors that can be used to explain Trump’s victory in the US elections?
  • In what ways could you see political actors manipulating voters?
  • How can we, as individuals and society, avoid future manipulations of this kind?