The Science of Fear-Mongering: How to Protect Your Mind from Demagogues | Susan David


How do we thrive in a world where every which
way we turn our fear is being activated by politicians, by the media and by the desperate
events that are happening around us? What is really fascinating when we look at
the brain research around fear is that our brains proxy anything that feels unfamiliar,
incoherent or inaccessible as being unsafe. There is fascinating research that shows that
when people have lower levels of self-esteem and they are in a job in which they are recognized
and promoted, that promotion can feel incoherent to the person with low self-esteem. They have low self-esteem and they might be
used to and expecting to be treated badly. So what is fascinating is the results showing
that when people are promoted when they have a lower levels of self-esteem they are more
likely to leave their jobs. Fear is an incredibly, incredibly powerful
force in our lives and our brains are fairly immature in assessing anything that feels
slightly incoherent for unfamiliar as unsafe. What this might mean is that if you are used
to hearing a story time and time again from a parent or from a partner about how you are
not good enough, you are more likely to be drawn to that relationship because it feels
familiar. The messaging that you are getting time and
time again is connected with what you expect to get. When we have politicians who are effectively
demagogues who are inspiring fear in us, that fear leads to very particular and relatively
predictable responses. When we are fearful there is this idea in
psychological research of mortality say yes that when our mortality is threatened, when
someone says oh this group of people is out to get you and we feel that we are actively
being threatened we are more likely to stereotype, we are more likely as individuals to become
bigoted, we are more likely to respond to messages that we hear time and time again
even if they are against our values as somehow making sense to us. How do we protect ourselves against this? Daniel Kahneman describes system 1 thinking
and system 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is the intuitive response,
the emotional visceral us and them that can sometimes arise out of fear. System 2 is the deliberate thoughtful examination
of what is this person saying? Is it inline with how I really want to be? Is it connected with how I really want to
raise my children? Is this a world that I want to support? When we are able to step back from our fear,
not to pretend that it doesn’t exist but to see our fear for what it is, fear, not a direction
but data and an emotion. When we are able to step back from the fear
and able to assess the fear and assess the messaging from the place of our values in
a more deliberate thoughtful way, we are able to come to a place where we are ultimately
protected from the demagoguery message, from the message of the fear and are able to move
us ourselves forward in a way that is aliened with how we truly want to be and with a world
that we truly want to live in. When Donald Trump first started with all of
his messaging we used to hear things that the politicians would say and we would be
like oh my goodness how can the person possibly say that thing? But what happens over time is the more familiar
something sounds, so the more we’ve heard it time and time again, even if the story
is inaccurate, even if the story doesn’t serve us the more we are likely to become immured
to it and immune to it. So what I actually think from a media perspective
is when I speak to people in the media about this they will often say well we simply go
where the story takes us so we’ll give as much coverage to wherever the story is at
even if the story is one that insights hatred or violence. But I actually think that there is a very,
very powerful ethical choice that the media makes in that. Because when they expose and expose and expose
and expose a story that is about hatred and a story that is about violence, as human beings
the more familiar we become with that story the more immured we become to it. And I think we can see exactly this in the
current elections that things that were said six months ago where everyone was horrified
that a politician could possibly even prevail on people to listen to what was being said
are now being met with oh there we go again. We somehow have become immured to the messaging
because of the familiarity with which we are hearing it. And I think it’s really important for us as
a society and for us as voters to recognize that a familiar story it’s not necessarily
a truthful story. A familiar story might sound comfortable and
our brains might proxy that story for meaning safe and therefore right and therefore comfortable,
but that story doesn’t necessarily reflect us or what we value. And it’s really important to be able to step
out from the safety of what might at this point feel familiar and really recognize the
words for what they are. They are words that are inciting hatred and
division and stereotyping in us as a society. And for many of us that’s not the society
in which we want to live. And I think there is a moral impetus on us
to be able to step back from the story and step forward with our values.