Dave’s Desk@Ditch: The Business of Fear

If you’ve been reading this column for the past several years since the newspaper’s hard-copy version came on-board, then you’re probably aware that my political leanings have never appeared in this particular space, though I’ve been tempted to do so every now and then.

As our nation kicks off its inherently frenetic primary election season in the coming weeks, awash with its predictable, non-stop bombardment from various media sources, I truly hope that the votes being cast will emanate from a source of light, rather than of darkness.

Whether in politics or any other sphere of life; there are plenty of folks looking to capitalize on our fears. Sadly, countless mechanisms exist to exploit this simple fact. When framed as a threat to our health, safety or financial well-being (despite the ridiculously minuscule odds), many people fall victim to manipulation.

By exaggerating a perceived danger, those in power (or ones who seek it), are able to direct their messaging to a particular segment of the population most susceptible to the message’s hyperbolic content.

A recent piece appearing in Psychology Today highlights this paradigm, as criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn describes a sociological concept known as moral panic; whereby “public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.”

Bonn goes on to explain that “central to the moral panic concept is an argument that public concern or fear over an alleged social problem is mutually beneficial to politicians, enforcement authorities and the news media.”

Of course the upside to be gained by this fear-mongering is hardly limited to politicians. The insurance industry, gun lobby, pharmaceutical companies, financial institutions, anti-immigration advocates, and various security-related entities, to name just a few, all play upon our fears in order to support their bottom lines. It goes without saying that there are billions of dollars to be made in the “fear business” these days.

With seemingly bottomless advertising budgets, many of these entities have professional consultants and research departments exclusively dedicated to crafting a particular narrative to suit their needs. Quite often, the messenger tends to be someone whose appearance is appealing, seems trustworthy, and has a likable personality.

We might feel a bit more empowered each time we’re approached by one or more of these external forces who claim to be looking out for our best interest. When under stressful conditions (either real or perceived), their messaging is thus “called up” in our consciousness as needed.

This theory is supported in an interview conducted by The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan with public-health expert Sara Gorman and her father Jack Gorman, of Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants, in which they cited research showing the neurological effects that take place (primarily in the prefrontal cortex), as individuals are presented with certain scenarios.

When asked by Khazan why false or fear-mongering information can be so powerful; the elder Gorman replied, “There are good data showing that the first thing that you hear makes the biggest impression – and that if it’s heard under emotional circumstances, it’s always associated with that emotion. It will be placed into long-term memory by this more primitive part of the brain, and it turns out to be very, very difficult to dislodge.”

Taken one step further; there comes a point when enough see ingly “voiceless” individuals find comfort in a charismatic figure or some agenda-pushing organization, and essentially band together in their shared victimhood.

For those seeking power, that’s when the “art” of fear-mongering truly becomes effectual, as the fear monger mobilizes its forces to act.

To think that one is above being co-opted by subversive manipulation may be a bit presumptuous. Or as senior writer Drake Baer of New York Magazine puts it rather succinctly, “What’s special about fear is that it’s such a powerful, pre-conscious, pre-rational emotion. It frames your thinking before you can even think about it, regardless of how intelligent you are.”

Indeed, this is something to contemplate before heading into the voting booth this year.

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program based at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton, NY. He is also a frequent contributor to “Who Smarted?,” a popular educational podcast for elementary school children.

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