April 15, 2008
Overcoming Fear in Foreign Policy
by Michael Shellenberger
On September 24, the New York Daily News starkly announced: "Evil has landed." The occasion? The arrival of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Manhattan. Three weeks later, President Bush declared in a news conference that a nuclear Iran could lead to "World War III." Four days later, Vice President Cheney reiterated the threat in a major speech. And New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh reported that the White House was serious about taking military action against Iran, which almost everyone believed was on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.
It turned out that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a fact made public by the release of a National Intelligence Estimate report, which has since quieted the appeals to fear. And yet fear is never far from reach, and the temptation of politicians to use it will remain strong.
The Academic Study of Fear
Since World War II, social psychologists and other scientists have broken significant new ground in understanding the relationship between fear, political behavior, and attitudes. After 9/11, scientists conducted new research to understand the role fear plays as a core motivator for political behavior. What scientists have found is that fear overwhelmingly tends to motivate anti-social reactionary behaviors and attitudes, including the justification of inequality, support for war and military action, and authoritarianism.
In a major review of social science research since the 1950s, a group of social scientists in 2003 found that fear of death, change, ambiguity, complexity, and system collapse were some of the most powerful predictors of reactionary political ideologies, from resistance to change to authoritarianism and support for inequality. This confirmed other research showing that people hold particular political views to meet psychological needs. In situations where people fear events such as system collapse, they tend to become more right wing and authoritarian. The meta-analysis, led by New York University Professor John Jost, was of 88 studies in 12 countries with a total of 22,818 cases studied.
To say that ideological belief systems have a strong motivational basis is not to say that they are unprincipled, unwarranted, or unresponsive to reason or evidence. Although the (partial) causes of ideological beliefs may be motivational, the reasons (and rationalizations) whereby individuals justify those beliefs to themselves and others are assessed according to informational criteria... We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear.
Scientists consider fear to be a primary emotion along with sadness, anger, happiness, disgust, and surprise. Like other emotions, fear is a stage in a process; emotions do not go away but rather become other emotions. Many scientists believe that we are never in an emotion-free state. Emotions are not a kind of internal weather, randomly changing without pattern, but rather are triggered by external events and memories of those events. Emotions are social and contagious: we can "catch" the emotions of others.
At the same time, fear also has positive potential. It can focus our attention and change behavior. Fear of nuclear annihilation -- alongside hope for a more peaceful future -- motivated much of the nuclear freeze movement, and likely helped lead to the SALT, and START treaties to reduce nuclear arsenals in America and Russia. The problem is not fear itself -- a valuable and inevitable human emotion -- but rather failing to overcome it.
Social Values Research and Fear
Given the positive and negative roles played by fear, we need a more subtle understanding of the emotion and how it can be used, and overcome, in a variety of contexts, from Iran and Iraq to terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
Those Americans who have the most fearful personalities are more likely to support unilateral military action against other countries. These fears manifest in other ways. Using American Environics research, UC Berkeley sociologist Robb Willer found that Americans who report greater dislike of racial minorities are also more likely to support military action against Iran -- a dislike that extensive research indicates is driven by an irrational fear of the Other.
American Environics found that those Americans who report higher levels of fear of suffering personal violence, such as on their way from home to work and back, are more likely to support military action, as well as sacrifices of their core liberties in service to protecting themselves from the Other who is causing the fear.
Finally, fear is situational: in moments when the majority of Americans are in a state of fear, our inclinations bend toward the use of military force, not greater diplomacy, and towards the use of any means, even torture, to overcome the threat.
It is especially important to understand the relationship between external events, behavior, belief and emotion. After 9/11, President Bush's approval ratings soared from 50 to 90 percent, well before the President had done anything other than being the president during a terrifying event. Reduced anxiety about terrorism among the general population, due to reduced evidence of a dangerous external threat, may be a factor in President Bush's low approval ratings, along with dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and other events.
While some external events, such as a future terrorist attack, are outside the control of advocates, it is possible to shape the meaning of these events, and thus influence the public reaction to them.
What It All Means
Fear can motivate blind, counterproductive action, such as the invasion of Iraq. But it can also promote clear-eyed reasoning about one's long-term interest, such as in treaties by the U.S. and the former Soviet Union to dismantle large percentages of their nuclear arsenal. Understanding different emotional and ideological responses to the same and different external events will help us understand what kinds of policies and communications can be mobilized to overcome fear.