On Healing 8/16/2004: A climate of fear makes us less likely to be fair

In these times of elevated and high terror alerts, our leaders tell us we should be more vigilant but live our lives normally. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that, but I’m working on it. I know some people become frightened and withdrawn, some become cynical, but very few are untouched. And why? According to Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon, author of In the Wake of 911: The Psychology of Terror, these acts or threats destroy the veneer we create to protect ourselves from fear of death.

According to Solomon and others who have developed “terror management theory,” all living things possess an instinct to stay alive. But what makes humans unique is that we are the only creatures on the planet to know that someday we will die.

That awareness raises our anxiety to sometimes unmanageable levels. Solomon and his colleagues have found that the more anxious people get, the more likely they are to categorize the world as good or evil in order to manage the anxiety. His work is based on control studies completed over the course of 15 years. Additional studies have found that this may well be the origin of prejudice and discrimination.

In the short run, these defenses work quite well. If we convince ourselves that we are good and others are evil, then we can enjoin the battle on moral grounds. So if we focus on annihilating evil or suppressing an offending group, we feel less anxious, less vulnerable, and more righteous.

But this only works in the short run. Of course, in the long run, eventually we live our lives afraid of the “other,” and we still never find the security we long for. So what do we vulnerable humans do?

In an article soon to be published in the journal, Psychological Science, researchers found that increased anxiety about one’s death led to an increase of favorable evaluations of a charismatic candidate who reminds them of their vulnerability, and promises safety. That same anxiety produced more negative evaluations of a political candidate with a more balanced leadership style, one more interested in dialogue than aggression.

Similar studies were completed in Iran. According to Solomon, an Iranian colleague researched Iranian attitudes toward suicide bombers. In general, Iranians didn’t much care for them. But when reminded of their mortality and vulnerability by those with authority, their attitudes toward suicide bombers became extremely positive.

These findings frightened Solomon: “What we’ve been finding is that when people are reminded of their mortality, they tend to cling rather tenaciously to cherish their respective cultural worldviews. So when the president declares that he has been chosen by God to rid the world of evil, people who feel anxious and vulnerable will be more attracted to him.”

On the other side of the world, Solomon continued, people seem to be more enthusiastic about radical Islam when they are made to feel more vulnerable. “These positions are different sides of the same psychological coins,” Solomon said.

What makes these positions especially dangerous is that the more we cling to our worldview, the less likely we are to engage in dialogue.

Much of life is about managing our anxiety. Our future could turn on the very personal issue of anxiety management. There are those who say we should vote with our heads and not our hearts. I disagree. I think we should vote with our hearts – the true voice of our hearts. All of this anxiety is because we cherish life. And much of what we cherish is about relationships, love, nature, and being part of a larger community. That’s the voice of our hearts.

When we humans feel threatened, it is our instinct to control those uncomfortable emotions. But when we allow the unmanaged anxiety to dictate our decisions, it affects where we live, how we feel about other people, whether we buy guns, the size car we drive, and how we raise our children.

For most of us, vulnerability and death are pretty frightening. But if we listen to our hearts, we will hear that we are frightened because we love life, we love others. Maybe we ultimately cherish life because we love. Maybe we want safety so that we can continue to give and receive love. And hatred will never help us feel safe.

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