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January 11, 2008

Hard-Wired For Fear 9/11, "War On Terror"

Fear trumps reason. It's hard-wired in the brain. Newsweek (via Bruce Schneier):

The brain structure that processes perceptions and thoughts and tags them with the warning "Be afraid, be very afraid!" is the amygdala. Located near the brain's center, this almond-shaped bundle of neurons evolved long before the neocortex, the seat of conscious awareness. There is good reason for the fear circuitry to be laid down first, explains neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of New York University. Any proto-humans who lacked a well-honed fear response did not survive long enough to evolve higher-order thinking; unable to react quickly and intuitively to rustling bushes or advancing shadows, they instead became some carnivore's dinner. Specifically, fear evolved because it promotes survival by triggering an individual to respond instantly to a threat — that is, without cogitating on it until the tiger has pounced. [...]

The evolutionary primacy of the brain's fear circuitry makes it more powerful than the brain's reasoning faculties. The amygdala sprouts a profusion of connections to higher brain regions — neurons that carry one-way traffic from amygdala to neocortex. Few connections run from the cortex to the amygdala, however. That allows the amygdala to override the products of the logical, thoughtful cortex, but not vice versa. So although it is sometimes possible to think yourself out of fear ("I know that dark shape in the alley is just a trash can"), it takes great effort and persistence. Instead, fear tends to overrule reason, as the amygdala hobbles our logic and reasoning circuits. That makes fear "far, far more powerful than reason," says neurobiologist Michael Fanselow of the University of California, Los Angeles. "It evolved as a mechanism to protect us from life-threatening situations, and from an evolutionary standpoint there's nothing more important than that."

Fear is not only more powerful than reason, however. It is also (sometimes absurdly) easy to evoke for reasons that also lie deep in our evolutionary past. Reacting to a nonexistent threat, such as fleeing from what you thought was a venomous snake that turned out to be a harmless one, isn't as dangerous as failing to react to actual threats. The brain is therefore wired to flinch first and ask questions later. [...]

The results of targeting the amygdala in a way that overrides the thoughtful cortex can be ludicrous or tragic, but frequently irrational. In a classic experiment, scientists compared people's responses to offers of flight insurance that would cover "death by any cause" or "death by terrorism." The latter, of course, is but a small subset of the former. Yet the specificity of the word "terrorism," combined with the stark images the word evokes, triggers the amygdala's fear response in a way that "by any cause" does not. Result: people are willing to spend more for terrorism insurance than death-by-any-cause insurance. [...]

"Negative emotions such as fear, hatred and disgust tend to provoke behavior more than positive emotions such as hope and happiness do," says Harvard University psychology researcher Daniel Gilbert. Perhaps paradoxically, the power of fear to move voters can be most easily understood when it fails to — that is, when an issue lacks the ability to strike terror in citizens' hearts. Global warming is such an issue. Yes, Hurricane Katrina was a terrifying example of what a greenhouse world would be like, and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" scared some people into changing their light bulbs to energy-miserly models. But barely 5 percent of voters rank global warming as the issue that most concerns them. There is little public clamor to spend the kind of money that would be needed to change our energy mix to one with a smaller carbon footprint, or to make any real personal sacrifices.

A big reason is that global warming, as an issue, lacks the characteristics that trigger fear, says Gilbert. The human brain has evolved to fear humans and human actions (such as airplane bombers), not accidents and impersonal forces (carbon dioxide, even when it is the product of human activities). If global warming were caused by the nefarious deeds of an evil empire — lofting military satellites that deliver carbon dioxide into the stratosphere, say, rather than the "innocent" actions of people heating their homes and driving their children to school — "the war on warming would be this nation's top priority," Gilbert wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Besides needing that human component, events loom scariest when they pose a threat next week, not next decade or beyond. Climate change is already here, but the worst of it would arrive if the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt, which is decades away. "The brain is adapted to deal with the here and now," says Gilbert — the lethal-tusked mastodon right over there, not the herd of them that will migrate through your encampment next spring. It's little wonder, then, that warnings about the eventual insolvency of Medicare or Social Security fail to move voters, and that global warming "fails to trip the brain's alarm," he says. But the prospect of illegal immigrants' changing the face of neighborhoods today does.

The primitive nature of fear means that it can be triggered most powerfully not by wordy arguments but by images that make a beeline for the brain's emotion regions.

Images are the key. No images in history had such a high-voltage effect on the amygdala of the world as the World Trade Center images from 9/11. The planes hitting the towers; the towers collapsing. Those images made 9/11 the most successful psyops operation of all time, turning the country around on a dime, rechanneling it in a radically different direction. Whoever dreamed it up, it was genius. Evil genius, but genius.

And they've been whanging away on that fear circuitry ever since. Which is why this message (also via Bruce Schneier) is such an important one to convey to our elected officials, wherever we live:

I am not afraid of terrorism, and I want you to stop being afraid on my behalf. Please start scaling back the official government war on terror. Please replace it with a smaller, more focused anti-terrorist police effort in keeping with the rule of law. Please stop overreacting. I understand that it will not be possible to stop all terrorist acts. I accept that. I am not afraid.

Send it to your elected officials, or at least take it to heart. Refuse to be terrorized. Just because you have an amygdala doesn't mean you have to act like it.

Posted by Jonathan at January 11, 2008 04:41 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Nice, Jon. Thanks. Exactly right.


Posted by: Wolf DeVoon at January 11, 2008 07:01 PM

Are people tired of being afraid? At least it seems a foregone conclusion that the Republicans are no-accounts in the election--it doesn't matter who's nominated, because nobody's going to vote for them. People are reacting to the Democratic talk (as corporate filtered as it is) of health care, jobs, and environment a distant third.

Posted by: Derek at January 12, 2008 01:11 PM

more focused anti-terrorist police effort

After all, we know how readily Al Quaeda responds to police and grand jury summons.

You're not afraid of terrorism because like most lefties you think if you keep feeding the alligator he'll eat someone else first. Also, as long as it's Jews and Americans who are killed (though Muslims are actually the greatest victims of Islamist terror) I don't think you're terribly bothered about it.

Posted by: Johan Amedeus Metesky [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 16, 2008 02:00 AM

Great piece. I think this attribute is magnified by our genetic propensity for selfishness.

Posted by: LanceThruster at January 17, 2008 10:40 AM