Fear and Fear-Mongering

Abraham Hicks

Fear-mongering is used a lot these days. Learn how fear affects our bodies and brains, how detect fear-mongering, and how to handle it. 

Who among us hasn’t over-reacted at least once in their life out of a fear that someone would hurt us or take something away from us?  Some politicians throughout our history have used such fears to motivate people to support them and their policies. Crime is a favorite. Other popular scary topics include people who don’t look like us, or don’t share our culture, language, or religion – all coming to take our jobs or our women and children. Economic crises like recessions or hyper-inflation can be pretty scary too, as can natural disasters. Invoking any of these fears to manipulate people is often referred to as fear-mongering.

In this short learning module, we review the consequences of fear, the hallmarks of fear-mongering, and some techniques you can use to manage fear.  These skills are important because, as we explain below, it hard to fight for something precious, like liberal and republican elements of our government (see America: Republic or Democracy?), when our minds are fogged with fear.

1. Fear has Consequences

Fear affects our ability to think and act.   We can miss important information:  our vision can narrow, we can become color blind, our depth perception may weaken.  Our sense of time gets distorted.  In such circumstances, it is no surprise that scared people start seeing threats where there are none.  When the threat is real, scared people miss crucial details that would help them win.  Some people run away, even when others need help. Some people freeze up, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car.

Fabrice Florin

Persistent fear can also affect our health.  Constant fear weakens our immune systems and can cause heart problems, stomach problems, and decreased fertility.  Other effects include tiredness, depression, faster aging, and even early death.  Doctors found that people who were most fearful of another attack after 9/11/2001 were also much more likely to suffer from new heart problems.

Many people are willing to sacrifice their rights, or the rights of others, when they are scared.  Here are a few famous historical examples of how fear motivated people in the wrong direction:

2. Be Alert to Fear-Mongering

To detect fear-mongering, here are some things you can be alert for:

The media – mainstream and otherwise – are often part of the problem.  News outlets that rely on viewers to see advertisements are more likely to sensationalize fearful events to get your attention.  Subscription news outlets may be less tempted.

3. See Things as They Really Are

Other times, fears are overblown or imagined.  In those times, it is equally important to see things clearly, as they are, if you want to hold on to your rights and liberty.  Here are some tips that can help:

4. Don’t Spread the Fear

Do the people around you a favor. Do not share or pass on other people’s fear-mongering.  It might make for juicy gossip, but it is dangerous and harmful. 

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© Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy
September 2019

This material is meant to be used only for civic education.
It may be copied and distributed only for non-profit, non-partisan, educational purposes and only with proper credit to the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

Written by Douglas Addison for the
Center for Free, Fair, and Accountable Democracy.

CFFAD is a non-profit organization providing non-partisan civic education.

More reading:

Freedom House, 2016.  The Civil Liberties Implications Of Counter-terrorism Policies, chapter in Today’s American: How Free?

Brad Schmidt and Jeffrey Winters, January 2002, Anxiety after 9-11, Psychology Today.

Holman, Silver, Poulin, Andersen, Gil-Rivas, and McIntosh, 2008. Terrorism, Acute Stress, and Cardiovascular Health: A 3-Year National Study Following the September 11th Attacks. Archives of General Psychiatry65(1), pp.73-80.

Nicolas Kristof, September 4, 2010, America’s History of Fear.

David Rothkpf, March 2015: How Fear Drives American Politics, TED Talk. _american_politics/transcript?language=en

Global Research, March 16, 2016, The Terrorism Statistics Every American Needs to Hear.

Economist Magazine, February 2013: Danger of death!

Photo credits:

Fear: Unknown

Deer in Headlights:  Fabrice Florin, CC 2.0.

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