The psychology of the politics of fear

Newsweek has a fantastic article on the psychology and neuroscience behind the politics of fear which draws directly on examples from the current and past US elections.

American politics in particular it seems, has, in recent years, used fear as a way of trying to motivate voters and support particular candidates.

The Newsweek article looks at why fear is such a potent force in decision-making and what psychology research has shown us about how invoking concepts of death or threat actually affects our reasoning and desires.

“When we’re insecure, we want our leaders to have what’s called an ‘unconflicted personality’,” says political psychologist Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. “Bush was very clear in his beliefs and had no doubts, but Kerry was painted as a flip-flopper…

That real-world observation has been replicated in lab studies. In one experiment Greenberg and colleagues ran during the 2004 campaign, volunteers who completed a questionnaire that reminded them about their own inevitable death (how thoughts of their own death made them feel and what they thought would happen to them physically after they died) expressed greater support for Bush than voters of similar leanings who were not reminded of mortality. The researchers also found that subliminal reminders of death increased support for Bush (and decreased support for Kerry) even among liberals. It’s not clear if such responses in the lab would endure in an actual voting booth. So perhaps one should not be too cynical about the decision by the Department of Homeland Security to raise the terror-threat level on Election Day 2004. “Political use of fear is not something new,” says NYU’s LeDoux. “But certainly the ante has been upped. We’ve gone from ‘vote for me or you’ll end up poor’ to ‘vote for me or you’ll end up dead’.”

Documentary maker Adam Curtis argued in his three-part series The Power of Nightmares (video: parts one, two, three) that since the cold war politicians across the globe have been attempting to promote the idea of foreign threats so they can then promise to deliver us from them.

Curtis is by no means a neutral commentator, but as he’s demonstrated with a number of his documentaries, his analysis of politics as an essentially psychological process is an interesting take on world affairs.

My only reservation about the Newsweek piece is that it takes the somewhat simplistic line that the amygdala equals fear in the brain.

The amygdala must have the worst PR of all of the brain structures, but to set the record straight, there’s more to the amygdala than fear, and more to fear than the amygdala.

Neurophilosophy has a guide to the neurobiology of fear if you want an overview of the wider fear circuits in the brain, and Current Biology has a freely available article which is a primer on the amygdala.

You may be interested to know that this almond shaped brain area is also involved in a range of positive emotional states, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

Link to Newsweek article ‘The Roots of Fear’ (via Schneier).

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