How Fear Manipulates You

Posted by on May 6, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 7 comments


We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality. ~ Seneca

I have been known in my time to seek out activities that scare me. From high-wall rock climbing to skydiving, the fear that I have felt in these situations is apparent and real, and the threat of death hangs over one’s shoulder like a constant reminder of mortality when taking part in these activities. It is real, it is tangible, and it is a motivator to be on guard against missteps and mistakes. This kind of activity is done for a buzz and an adventure, and in a society where we are wrapped up in our security blankets of employment and secure housing, we sometimes find a need to seek out adventures where we are not in control. In my case, the feeling of overcoming fear has motivated me to do some incredible things. And it’s not until it’s over that it becomes apparent exactly how amazing the experience has been.

I often think of Joe Simpson, mountaineer, climber and author of the real-life drama “Touching The Void“, where, with a horribly shattered leg, Joe was faced with the choice of either both he and Simon (his climbing partner) dying, or the possibility of only Joe perishing and Simon being able to continue down from the mountain.

“We had a silent agreement. We both knew the truth… I was injured and unlikely to survive.  Simon could down alone… I remained silent but it was no longer for fear of losing control.”

Ultimately it was fear of death that lead to Joe and Simon both reaching safety, but eventually, in Joe’s case, the fear gave way to an animalistic drive for survival when he found himself 20 metres down in an icy crevasse with a badly shattered leg, the only hope of escape being to somehow clamber out. I have never been in a situation like Joe’s, but I can empathise with the predicament. This is what fear is for, to help us out of a situation that could ultimately lead to our own demise. However in this day and age, fear is used against us, as a tool to make us act in ways we may not otherwise.

There are few better ways to spur a person into action than to present them with something they fear. From the seemingly harmless threats like fear of spiders, where you can send someone jumping into a spasmodic fit at the mere suggestion of the creepy crawlers, to real life-threatening situations, like being held at gunpoint, people do things they wouldn’t otherwise consider when fear is involved. While fear as a survival mechanism is incredibly useful in helping us avoid pain and death, thereby prolonging our longevity on this planet, many in positions of power also recognise that fear can be used as a tool against us, making us do what they want us to do, making pawns or puppets of us in the process.

The origins of the use of fear to control us stems way back farther than me may be aware, to our pre-human ancestors, where, for example, the troupe or tribe leaders of our ancestors would use intimidation tactics to ensure their dominance in any situation, much as gorillas do today. Displays of power and strength served as warnings against others in the troupe, fear of harm to the self minimising the challenge to the “leader” and further concreting his position in the group.

This still holds true in modern society, and though according to Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature“, the threat to our personal safety is lessened due to the evolution of societal laws, we still react to fear as pushed upon us by our superiors in the same way as if it were a threat to our lives. Adrenalin rises, hands sweat, the heart races, the body trembles; The “fight or flee” reaction is initiated, and we tense up as if ready for physical battle. Those who hold power over us (the government, the police establishment, our employers, our religious leaders) all employ the use of fear in different ways, and though we are rarely in actual peril, we often react as though it were a threat to our health, our well-being, or our lives.

More often than not, the threats are idle; The police hold authority over us, but only if we “do something wrong”; The government instills fear with rhetoric around national security in the form of the threat of the “xenos“, outsider or foreigner, when in fact the threat is much smaller than presented; Our employers can hold over us the threat of dismissal or missing out on a bonus, and either deliver on their promise or simply use it as a way to keep us in line; And the religious leaders hold the threat of eternal damnation, just as a series of examples. It’s as if these threats are being held above our heads like a boobytrap triggered to go off if we ever “step out of line”.

Whether the threats against us are being carried out or not, the fact remains that those who would like to have control over us are acutely aware that fear is a necessary part of ruling over people. It remains a tool by which  to keep people in a constant state of mild panic which the powers that be can utilize to both placate and motivate people to do things they may not otherwise do.

From an article at Psychology Today about the way marketers use fear to evoke us into buying goods and services:

Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than fear. And, we have so many: fear of pain, disease, injury, failure, not being accepted, missing an opportunity, and being scammed to name a few. Fear invokes the flight or fight syndrome; and our first reaction is always to flee back to our comfort zone. If we don’t know the way back, we are likely to follow whoever shows us a path.

I notice this more and more often in today’s society: The propensity seems to be to use fear as a way to make us act, and by using this primal urge for acceptance and safety, we have evolved into a fear based culture, where going without, or missing out, or the apparent sense of security of being covered by insurance or having a way to prosecute, is a more compelling reason for acting than motivation to do just for the sake of doing. When you become aware of this, it is acutely apparent that it is not only a falsified social trend, but that the politics, the media and marketers, and the religions that so many subscribe to are geared toward the innate human instinct for safety, and the aversion of fear.

There is a climate of fear in Australia as the result of unrelenting propaganda about the “threat” of being invaded by foreigners. This strong example of fear-based politics is exemplified in the  xenophobic messages we receive daily, which have made their way from the peripheries of our minds to the core of our politics. Not a day goes by where we don’t hear the messages of politicians screaming that we are under threat of invasion from outsiders, the “illegal” asylum-seeking hordes with dark-skin, weird customs and alien languages. This attitude is used as a political tool particularly in Australia, where the threat of “boat-people” is raised in every political conversation. The fear of outsiders is bolstered by the plethora of mixed messages we receive about them from both sides of the political fence, and it will no-doubt be a huge influence on the upcoming federal election later this year.

In America, there is a fear-based culture around the owning and carrying of firearms, as an apparent deterrent against others with the same firearms, the attitude being “better to be able to defend myself than to passively be gunned down by a stranger.” The basis for this attitude comes from the Second Amendment to the constitution, which was written as a fail-safe against a possibly tyrannical government, and was a reaction to the revolutionary war against the British which ended in 1783. The justification for this was the idea that an unarmed public was easier to control than an armed public, and America wanted to change this by becoming a potential militia of their own, in case of the government trying to hurt its people. The amendment reads:

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

This “freedom” that was once meant to be a comfort for the people of America, a way toward a fearless society, has now become the reason for fear, a polarisation from its original intent. People fear guns in the hands of potential killers, so they arm themselves to be on the same playing field. And the fear just increases, as the American public arms itself to the teeth. In this case, the “cure” for fear has become the reason for fear.

In Europe we see a politicised debate around the influx of Islamic people into France and England. France in particular, whether justified or not, constantly use this influx as tool to motivate people to vote in a particular way. The downside, especially for Islamic people, is a general attitude of fear of their religion and their traditional dress. Based in reality or not, these fears are utilised as a control tool, a way to motivate the masses to move in the direction that the political parties wish them to move.

Abrahamic religions have taken this idea of control by fear from this world into the ultimate extreme, eternity. Christianity and Islam both use stories of damnation against believers and non-believers alike, the threat is to “toe the line” or exist in torment for eternity. Eternity is a very long time, and torment is not something we would wish upon anyone, that is, unless you are from one of these religions. Richard Dawkins, in his book 2006 book “The God Delusion” equates the teaching of damnation to children to child abuse. It is a particularly nasty use of fear to control people, and it shows the degree to which people will go to try to gain this control and influence over people.

The threat of hell is not the nastiest thing religion has up its sleeve. Actual death threats for apostasy and blasphemy are being sent around the world as we speak, and none is best known for this than Islam. Right now, in the predominantly Islamic country of Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Muslim men are marching on the streets demanding that atheist bloggers, blasphemers and apostates be killed for this purported crime. Their 13 demands read like a shopping list of fears and anxieties about their religion. One wonders how tenuous religions really are if they can be threatened by a whiff of common-sense, or the slightest suggestion of disbelief.

One thing to remember is this: Our fears of the unknown or possible dangers are only ruled by our reactions to situations. It has often been said that it’s not the situations or conversations you have that determine how you feel, but the way you react to them. While we may not have any control over the situations we find ourselves in, we most certainly can change the way we react to them. (I’m aware this flies in the face of  earlier blogs I’ve written about the non-existent nature of free will, but as I said there, we live our lives as if free will exists, so the fact it may not pedantically exist is a moot point.) It is apparent that we can control our reactions, and there are a few things may help us in striving to cope with the stresses that life brings to us.

We are all at the whims of our fears, and they can be so crippling that you may not feel like getting up in the morning. The first key to controlling fear is to recognise the fears. Ask yourself “What am I afraid of?”, “Is the fear justified as something to be afraid of?” and “Do I stand to lose more than I gain if I give in to my fears?” Once you are aware of the fears being deliberately foisted upon you, some of them may lose power over you. Oft quoted from Epictetus “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Fear can be used against you in just about all aspects of your life; What you think, how you dress, what you eat, what you do, who you sleep with. But if you educate yourself, really look at the threats being aimed at you, and make an evaluation of the efficacy of the fear-based claims, you can make decisions that are not only better for you, but based in truth. It will also make you a stronger person.

I’ll close by quoting Frank Herbert, famous science fiction author of the “Dune” series of books, who wrote a particularly potent piece of prose in the incantation of the Bene Gesserit, which reads:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

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  1. Great post. Good perspective on the insidious nature of the use if fear. Fear is rooted in anger and animality. That is why those that are convinced of a threat to their lives / lifestyles / livelihoods can quite happily sanction the use of barbaric acts of violence ( torture / war ) to “stop” the threat. Such resolutions would not be agreed to by people who feel secure and assured of their safety.

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  2. Excellent post.  I hadn’t seen the similarity between the “fear culture” that exists here in the U.S. and generalized anxiety disorder until now.  You gave me a clearer picture of how to address fear-based stances that so many of my conservative friends have bought into and a deeper well of empathy for them, too.  Having suffered from generalized anxiety nearly my whole life I’ve got a large toolbox to draw from, so thanks.

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  3. Good article, except for the section on America’s second amendment.  That amendment was to provide an army for the defense of “”a free state” on the cheap!  No standing army to pay or outfit!  Our founding fathers also mistrusted a standing army because a future president might decide to use it for other purposes (and they have! Spanish/American war, VietNam, Granada, Iraq to name some).  It was not to “defend” against home grown despotism, our Constitution had a built-in process for that; it is called the VOTE!

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  4. Great post. Like many others before me, I stayed in religion way longer than I reasonably should have if not for the fear of hell. They drilled it into me so deeply that I was scared of hell well past when I even believed in hell. I was terrified of something I didn’t even think exists. I agree with Dawkins, it’s child abuse.

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  5. I remember another passage by Frank Herbert, I think also in the first Dune book, I’ll paraphrase as, “Faith is among the greatest of motivators.” Well, I suspect that given your post, fear is a close companion to faith, and all too often used to justify faith, as with the assumptions going into Pascal’s wager and as you note, the more visceral threats of damnation by fundamentalists. As a former Adventist, fear and I were old companions, fear of even the slightest shortcoming. I must be careful not to merely replace old fears long given up with new. Thank you, Martin.

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  6. Excellent, thoughtful post. Will take time to absorb it all. Cheers.

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  7. Having worked with and in sales from time to time, I can atest to the fear factor being used, especially in the fitness industry, it is one of the biggest sales tactics that are taught to get people to sign up for a gym membership.  I too have occasionally pushed my own boundaries, like sky diving (tandem) and while everyone on the plane thought I was going to baulk at the last minute due to the pale face I had while I maneuvered myself to the edge of the plane (still not strapped to the professional  skydiver) I’ve never regretted the experience. Well except for the part where we were free falling and I opened my  mouth to breathe and found a whole lot of air rushing into my lungs and unable to breathe out. It was an awe inspiring experience. I was at the time, beginning to unravel my religious binds.

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