Fear is an Evolutionary Hangover

Don’t let the media and our politicians take advantage of it

(Credit: Bloomberg Business Week)

This is an article about pessimism. More specifically it’s about why people feel so negative about a world that by almost all accounts is improving. For the average human being on planet earth today, life is better than it has been at any point in human history. And the progress we’ve made as species in the last 25 years gives us good reasons to believe we can make even more progress in the next 25.

So why is it that when we are better informed and have more access to information than ever before, there’s such a big gap between the way we think the world is, and the way it actually is? Why do so many people feel pessimistic, and scared of what the future holds?

In recent years, there’s been a spate of new research suggesting the answers can be found in neuroscience. Inside all of our brains is a series of connections and synapses which are hardwired for threat detection. They centre around a region known as the amygdala. Two-thirds of the neurons in this region are dedicated to looking out for bad news: it’s like an old evolutionary alarm bell. And while its old, it’s still incredibly powerful. When we see something potentially scary or dangerous, signals from the amygdala override higher functioning part of the brain such as the hypothalamus.

Brain imaging studies of healthy humans show that when we are exposed to potential threats, neural activity in the amygdala increases and the body responds through sweating or an increased heart rate. This is known as the amygdala hijack. And it works even if the threatening stimuli are presented subliminally. For example, we identify angry faces faster than happy ones; our ancient fight-or-flight limbic system is activated even if we’re shown the images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that we don’t have any conscious recollection.

(Credit: Progressive Dairy)

Thanks to something known as negativity bias, the memory of potential threats goes straight into our memory too, in contrast to positive events and experiences which usually need to be held in awareness for more than 10 seconds to transfer into long-term storage. In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure. For our ancestors that was useful, because the more attention you pay to scary stuff, the more likely you are to pass on your genes.

An important caveat here— this is not a reductionist argument. You’re reading this article on Medium, so it’s likely you’ve heard about the amygdala hijack before. It’s been popularised by people such as Peter Diamandis and appeared in numerous articles and opinion pieces online. As a result, for many people the amygdala has become practically synonymous with ‘fear.’ But the scientific idea behind the amygdala hijack is a little more subtle than most people realise. As Vaughn Bell points out in a recent article, one should be wary of someone presenting a straight link between biology and certain types of behaviour (e.g. talking about ‘warrior genes’ or claims that women are more inclined to be monogamous). Anyone using simple reductionist biology as either an axe or a foil marks them out as scientifically naive.

If neuroscience has shown us anything in the last twenty years it’s that human beings are complicated. The amygdala is a threat detection centre — an important part of a specific neural circuit that allows the brain to detect and respond to threats. By contrast, fear is a product of multiple cognitive systems in the neocortex (memory, perception, etc.) that operate in parallel with the amygdala circuit. And because we usually feel afraid when we’re frozen in place or running away, these two separate things (fear and the bodily response) tend to be tightly correlated in our conscious mind. It’s a classic case of confusing correlation with causation.

The problem is that in today’s world, the media takes advantage of that confusion to sell us stuff. A 2012 study by the University of Michigan for example, showed that when people were presented with negative news their heart rate and sweat output became far more active than when presented with positive news. In another study, done last year, researchers tracked people’s eyesight as they read from a selection of news stories, and showed that they lingered far longer on the negative news. That’s why the majority of our news stories are negative. It’s a simple commercial decision. The media makes money by making you pay attention to a story, and negative or potentially scary stories are more compelling than optimistic ones.

You may have heard the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” That’s not just a colloquialism coined by some cut-throat tabloid editor. It’s a potent aphorism which captures an evolutionary truth that’s at the heart of the modern day media machine’s business model. We’re being fed a steady diet of bad news to improve ratings, and it’s distorting our way of looking at things. In a world where everyone is a journalist, that means we’re not just getting bad news from our city or country, but from every corner of the planet. A lot of bad things can happen to 7.1 billion people in a day; in 2016, we get to hear all about them.

To make matters even worse, there’s also something known as confirmation bias, which is our tendency to selectively look at information that confirms our pre-existing notions. This is the work for which Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize a few years ago. So the whole thing operates as a sort of twisted feedback loop. The media reports bad news, which they know we’ll pay more attention to, and that makes us feel pessimistic about the world. We then go looking for news that backs it up, and of course there’s plenty of it out there so the cycle starts again.

It’s not just the media either. Fear and conflict are programmed into the stories we tell each other. Our films and book have to have a conflict. These are the basic building blocks of any good story — antagonist vs. protagonist, conflict vs. resolution etc. Think about the great epics, stories like The Odyssey, The Bhagavad Gita, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick. All these stories have conflict at their heart. The same goes for our most popular movies. Imagine Avatar, where the humans and the aliens hold hands and dance around the world tree together. Imagine The Force Awakens opening with this scroll…

And then there are the politicians. Right wing demagogues of course, have known about this stuff for decades. Like the media, they know that fear is captivating. They emphasise threats such as crime, terrorism and immigration in order to get you to suppress your concern for other people and vote selfishly. If you terrify the living daylights out of people they’ll protect themselves at the expense of others. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that the left, and particularly environmentalists, are just as bad at fear-mongering, if not worse. They tell us that bankers are the devil, that capitalism is predatory, that our forests and oceans are being pillaged and that we’re on a collision course with a climate change time bomb.

Regardless of which of these perspectives you agree with, the problem with this fear-based approach is that while it might galvanise a few people into action for the majority of us it breeds cynicism, apathy or hopelessness. That’s why so many of us feel a pronounced social pessimism and anxiety when we think about the future. There’s a real darkness there. As one of my favourite thinkers, Alex Steffen points out, “some of that darkness comes, undoubtedly, from legitimate despair: from solastalgia about the loss of the natural world or from compassion for the horrible suffering of the millions whom our global economy has left behind. Some of it is the cynicism of disappointed idealists, folks who’ve seen so much of the underside of human nature that they’ve abandoned hope.”

But a lot of it is the narrative lure of collapse. Its a narrative that’s pushed by our media, compounded by the entertainment industry, and abused by our attention-seeking politicians. That’s why we get stories about vaccines causing autism. It’s why movies like Mad Max or the Hunger Games are so popular in our cinemas. It’s why Ebola makes headlines when bad doctor’s handwriting kills the same number of people every year. It’s why every single candidate in the current US elections talks about why America is no longer great, and how they’re going to fix it. We see these same narratives play out again and again and again .

So what can we do about it? Start with trying to reprogramme your mindset. Start planning for a future in which things get better. The more people start believing we can create a better society, the sooner we can start taking action. Heed the words of the young John F. Kennedy, who wrote a letter to a friend in the 1930s in which he said “It seems so easy to fall into a distorted view of public affairs based more on personal bias than on informed understanding.” Stop listening the mainstream news or at least, listen to it critically. Understand that the media has a commercial logic that’s predicated on fear and innacurate perceptions of risk.

Start reading more fiction, especially science fiction. New stories can help us imagine many futures, and in particular can help us to direct our imaginations towards the futures we want. Imagining a particular kind of future isn’t just day dreaming, it’s an important and active framing that makes it possible for us to construct a way forward that approaches that imagined vision. Tell stories about the people you know who are out there making the world a better place. Focus on opportunities and solutions, rather than problems and threats. Remember that optimism doesn’t have to be a reaction to the world around us; it can also be a tool by which we affect the world around us. If we believe we can create a world that is cleaner, fairer and better, we have a far better chance of one day achieving it.

I’m the co-founder of a small, Melbourne-based think tank called Future Crunch. We send out a fortnightly newsletter with stories about people who are using science and technology to make things better. You should totally subscribe. It’s awesome.

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