Blog 8: Project Fear

Register your fear

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York?

Can you recall who you were with?

Is it easy to think back on what you were doing at the time?

Chances are, you do, you can and it is top of your mind to find words for this memory.

If I were to ask you, however, what you had for dinner 10 days ago it would probably take you some time piece the past back together. This is because fear is a great incentive for the exact registration of our memoiries.

The experience of fear triggers us to engrave an event much deeper into our consciousness, just in case it happens again. To prepare for survival another time we add to our memories the exact social context, our location, actions and the people present. That could be very clever human behavior, as we try not to return to events that my harm us, but it has a few serious drawbacks.

Part of the herd

When fearful events are on the top of our minds and memories, it can seriously influence our life-choices. You may think you are a rational creature that is prone to optimize on individual decisions. Actually, as social psychologists like Dr. Sander v.d. Linden (Cambridge Decision making Lab) and Prof. Dr. Paul de Lange (VU Psychology) have shown in research experiments, we are social creatures that are easily subject to incitement.

We are programmed to strive for consensus with our peer group. We act on our social perceptions of group expectations and shape our routines on the outlines of social judgment. If fear takes over, a string of fearful events can easily impact on the acts of a group. In defense we could start identifying a scapegoat, go on the defense and marginalize people we consider ‘dangerous’ based on our interpretations of for instance, their religion or ethnicity. We don’t do this based on real-life facts on the ways in which they may cause a threat to our existence, but, rather, because of the effect of fear and bias on our beliefs.

What can we do about this?

If fear can make disturbing beliefs spread like a virus, the thing to do is to find a medicine to neutralize the infection. This is easier said than done.

A first step would be to issue a clear warning against the fear, urging on vigilance

A second step, then is to debunk the unreasoned claim. The facts need to be stated to counteract the irrational perceptions that may infect the group.

Next is the adoption of a cognitive repertoire to resist the fake messages. This means that statements on certain subjects should never go unchecked. For instance, as soon as a discourse on the negative consequences of the practice of islam evolves a mechanism may ensue that opens up a discussion on the facts to support these claims.

This should work towards step four, the forming of evidence-based attitudes towards new information. The ways in which kids now start to learn at school to checkout the information they find on Facebook is aimed at the development of these attitudes.

The routine of a fact-checking, evidence-based attitude is a real asset as it allows for people to decide for themselves to what extent they want to be influenced.

We can free ourselves from project fear by finding freedom of choice. The biggest gift you can give to yourself, your peer-group and society: Choose Life!