Biology in the News Explained

Why fear mongering is so successful

No one would try to defend politics as a rational process, although some like to agonize over phenomena such as the conundrum of people who do not vote for their economic self-interest (e.g. What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America).

People from both extreme ends of the political spectrum claim to have logically thought through their positions, but that process always carries bias along with it. The root of our social biases is in-group vs. out-group mentality – how we distinguish those ‘with’ us from those ‘against.’

The power of this effect is striking. Asburn-Nardo and colleagues (2001) showed that anti-out-group biases emerge quickly even in the absence of any negative information about the out-group; it is strong even when groups are randomly assigned. This unconscious response is rooted in the limbic system of the brain, which also is associated with emotions such as fear. We cannot truly control our emotions, and likewise it is not a conscious process when we notoriously assimilate weak evidence to support our views, and ignore strong evidence that would refute them.

This response is likely rooted in humans’ evolutionary history as a social species (Tobena et al., 1999). When so much depends upon interactions with other individuals, shorthand for ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is important. Humans love to make rules, probably because rules help us to navigate society.

The less we interact face-to-face, the more of a problem bias becomes, though, so conflict due to ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality is not going to go away any time soon. At the same time, a lot of people are successful much of the time at suppressing unconscious biases, and even to the point of changing their minds occasionally. If they weren’t, power would not shift so easily between political parties due to dissatisfaction of the electorate with their leaders.

Populations tend to follow a normal distribution for about any trait you can measure. There’s no reason this would not be true for the magnitude of the tendency to reinforce biases dividing in-group and out-group. On one end of the scale are those derided (by people on the opposite end of the scale) as “bleeding-heart liberals” – by definition they have more empathy than average for people in out-groups.

The opposite of the bleeding-heart liberal is someone who is more hostile to out-groups than average. But the opposites are not perfectly balanced, because a tendency in this group is easily reinforced by fear-mongering, which appeals to the unconscious limbic system. Indeed, Ito et al. (1998) presented evidence that we react much more strongly to a negative stimulus than a positive one. This makes sense given that fear, stress and the like activate the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, which among other responses, increases adrenaline as part of the well-known “fight-or-flight” response. The parasymathetic response is simply the absence of of the sympathetic response; there is no equivalent effect that positive stimuli have on the body, and the mind.

This all means that arguments appealing to reason are paradoxically less compelling, because they require a conscious effort by the listener to respond in rational manner. Arguments based on fear work better in general because they appeal to our unconscious, requiring no intellectual investment on the part of the listener.

The “hostile” end of the in-groups vs. out-groups spectrum would be less able to overcome these unconscious tendencies with conscious reason. This is a possible explanation for hard-core right-wing pro-Bush Americans holding steady at a polled 20% of the population, despite what the majority of the population sees as a disasterously failed presidency. One might hypothesize that fear has a greater effect on the opinions of this 20% than on other people. Their social and political views are colored to a greater extent by emotion than those of other people, who are better at using their conscious mind to overcome instinctive biases; thus the use of political “code-words” that appeal to their baser natures.

Of course the 20% believe they have rationally thought out their views, because the emotional appeal of fear and divisiveness occurs at an unconscious level. The opposite 20% who prefer to love all mankind do not have an equally negative impact on society, because their views promote peace rather than conflict.

So Dick Cheney will always have the ear of people for whom fear drives political opinion; clearly he is one of them himself. It is much harder task for a president appealing to rationality to persuade. The main advantage to Obama right now is that the blatant politics of fear of the last eight years have been abysmally unsuccessful to the point that most of those who were swept up in it post-9/11 have now asserted conscious control over baser instincts that they now recognize to be destructive to society in general. But not all of them, thanks to the bell curve.


Ashburn-Nardo, L., Voils, C.I., and Monteith, M.J., 2001. Implicit associations as the seeds of intergroup bias: How easily do they take root? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81(5)789-799. 0022-3514/01/S5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.81.5.789

Ito, T.A., Larsen, J.T., Smith, N.K. and Cacioppo, J.T., 1998. Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75(4):887-900.

Tobena , A. Marks, I. Dar, R. 1999. Advantages of bias and prejudice: An exploration of their neurocognitive templates. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 23:1047-1058.


3 Responses to “Why fear mongering is so successful”

  1. Jane says:

    Very insightful article. I definitely have moments when I become aware of my own “us” vs. “them” mentality. It is the ugly underbelly of my beautifully complex limbic system. Bu we can try to work through it. Sometimes, I have to stop and say “okay, what is right about this other person’s ideology?” and force myself to come up with a reasonable answer.

    One comment you make that I disagree with, is that the other 20% are loving peacemakers who don’t hurt anyone. As a self-described social progressive/financially conservative type, I couldn’t disagree more. That other 20% tends to promote socialism, which requires taking resources from one group and giving it to another group that they deem more worthy. This type of action is very much totalitarian in nature and strips away our individual rights. So, I see both extremes that you reference as presenting the same danger- both groups have a clear idea about what everyone should be doing and want to impose their ideology on the rest of us.

  2. Thanks for submitting this post to our blog carnival. We just published the 46th edition of Brain Blogging and your article was featured!

    Thank you.


  3. Anya Chou says:

    This is why mankind needs to be replaced. When I see Star Trek where this deranged cancer of apekind is traveling around the stars I want to vomit. Chemophobes, radiophobes, herd-mentality idiocy, I’d rather see this species go extinct than see the many-all-too-many spam the stars.

    Transhumanism or genocide: nothing else is acceptable.


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