San Bernardino & Paris Attacks: The Psychology of Fear and its Influence on Social Behavior

Written By: Hooman Keshavarzi, Licensed Psychotherapist and Adjunct Professor of Psychology

Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion.  Fear is really what we are referring to when we say the words stress and anxiety. According to emotion theory, fear contains both functional and dysfunctional expressions just like in all other emotions.  The functional needs of emotions are designed to serve a specific goal that is demanded through the activation of that emotion.  The need fear demands is safety.  Keep this in mind! Safety. When individuals are scared, they respond with either FIGHT or FLIGHT in order to attain safety.  For example, if you encounter a wild animal in a forest, you will likely run away, for your own protection.  If you are attacked, and your safety is jeopardized, then you will FIGHT.  These are primitive instincts that we are programmed to respond with.  In fact, we experience a state of physiological arousal that activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the production of energy to tackle such stressful situations.  However, there can be a number of limitations of these very useful instinctual needs in modern social settings.

Most importantly, our physiological stress activation responses are designed to overcome more simple and temporary stressors.  However, modern human social interaction has become much more complex.  Over-reliance on primitive instincts can cause us to respond to fearful situations in a maladaptive or unhealthy way.  For example, if a student is asked to give a public presentation in school, then he may fear that his self-concept/self-esteem is in jeopardy.  His fear of negative social evaluation may cause him to either avoid (flight) the presentation by never participating or having a hyper-vigilant (fight) response when forced to present causing him to be too physiologically aroused to adequately deliver his performance.  This is characterized by his trembling, stuttering and having a difficult time articulating himself, due to an elevated heart rate, hyper-ventilation, rush of adrenaline, increased energy, etc.

Now that we understand the basic fundamentals of the emotion of fear, let us examine its role in influencing human psychology in the context of helping us shed some light on the recent social unrest that has been produced by San Bernardino and the Paris tragedies.

First off, it goes without saying that the credible scholars of the Islamic tradition have unanimously rejected any room for the justification of attacks on innocent civilian life.  So then what causes individuals to categorize all Muslims in with the Radicals?  One of the principles to consider is that during times of fear and anxiety, characterized by heightened physiological arousal, there is a greater likelihood of producing false positives in identifying something threatening that may not really be all that threatening.  This false identification combined with the mental/cognitive category of ‘Muslim = dangerous extremist’ is more likely in a state of fear.  Why do we do this?  The answer is that it is a safety response, whereby we are instinctively programmed to err on the side of caution and to respond to situations that could POSSIBLY be threatening, particularly if we have been trained to cognitively believe those items to be dangerous (this is how phobias are formed). For example, if you are in a jungle and you think you see a shape of a lion behind a tree, you are likely to be alarmed, even if you were to later realize that they were just two portions of branches behind the tree that created this false impression.  In fact, you may be alarmed by any movements of the trees.  This is an example of false identification of a threat due to the activation of both the cognitive category of lion and the emotion of intense fear that lead to the misperception of your environment. Therefore, in the lion example we are likely to flee (or make it flee from us: hence modern refugee policies) as we perceive it to be threatening when there is no actual threat like the branches behind the tree. Similarly, we see the strategic overemphasis on the psychological associations of Islam and extremism coupled with the activation of fear.  These are likely to produce false positives thereby increasing generalizations that equate the presence of some threatening Muslims to err on the side of caution and equate all Muslims as potentially dangerous.  This is a useful survival mechanism in primitive settings, as it would be ludicrous to assume an individual lion does not represent the whole genus of lions.  However, when this overgeneralizing tendency is applied to human behavior, it presents itself as a liability.  Of course, lions all behave alike and our cognitive category for lions as threatening is pretty useful.  But, human beings do not all behave similarly and therefore we are prone to lumping people into groups altogether particularly during times of fear.

Additionally, political and social policies tend to capitalize on this emotional vulnerability.  Human beings are more likely to support the infringement upon the human rights of others in the form of attacks, detainment, torture, collective punishment (fight) upon individuals they perceive to be in a threatening category when the emotion of fear is activated.   This is the same rhetoric that allowed the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan, establishment of Guantanamo bay and the list can go on.  Focusing back on the present, one may notice a spike in public support for Donald Trump’s racist, categorical attitudes especially after San Bernardino.  Remember I stated above, our primitive instinctual reactions to fear are designed to alleviate a temporary stressor.  Whereas, human groups don’t just disappear.  So human differences are not temporary, rather they are permanent.  Therefore, deporting, murdering or expelling a group of individuals can have a temporary psychological relief; however, dividing human beings actually causes a greater actual threat in the long-term.  That’s because we never actually dealt with the underlying problems. Such is the prevalent attitudes of people today where we see even on a micro level the spike in divorce rates, because people are not invested in solving real human problems.  It’s easier to villianize, avoid or get rid of people.  Such an underlying problem we face today is an absence of appreciating differences in other groups that is not based upon black and white or categorical thinking.

Donald Trump and members of radical Islamist groups have somethings in common.  Among them is that they both preach hate for their counterpart and categorize their foes as enemies belonging to a single unitary category.  When we categorize or label individuals as evil, known as the ‘just world phenomenon’ in psychology, this gives us permission to commit crimes against them because we have degraded them to a lower form of humanity. Where radical Islamists utilize rational gymnastics in justifying the killings of innocent humans despite it being clearly a violation of core Islamic principles, Trump justifies racial discrimination even when it is against the values of American society. The justification of their murder is acceptable as human beings can use this rhetoric to diminish the stress (fear) of guilt that exists in their minds in exchange for perceived ‘righteousness’.  Irrespective of whether the person who is categorizing others be a radical preaching the death of all Americans or Europeans OR Donald Trump calling for forbidding entry of Muslims into the US or proposing discriminant policy of requiring ID badges for Muslims as Hitler did of the Jews in WWII.

Activating fear in a society may allow for public support of reducing civil liberties and increasing governmental power.  Just as a child who is scared of a bully is likely to hand over responsibility of dealing with that bully to their older sibling, the public is likely to hand over responsibility of dealing with Muslims to their governments.  The long term effects of this, is that it creates a vicious cycle, whereby Muslims are marginalized, victimized and therefore more likely to become aggressive towards their perceived oppressors playing right into the hands of the radicals and reinforcing extremist thinking.

I want to re-highlight a point made above.  During times of fear, individuals are likely to have tunnel vision. This is also due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  They are only likely to see the immediate cause of the fear and unlikely to examine its origins.  Therefore, when fear is aroused in a nation, they are likely to blame ‘those bad Muslims or radicals’, but unlikely to ask the question of what produced those individuals.  This is known as scapegoating theory, whereby a single group in that society can be blamed, making it more comfortable for society to have a simple explanation for their problems.  It allows individuals to displace their emotions upon a ‘common enemy’.  Ironic is the case that other ethnic minorities jump on the bandwagon of Muslim bashing; we need to look no further than Ben Carson.  Individuals ignore the fact that there are some systematic set of foreign policies and a history that has marginalized certain groups of peoples across the world, engendering intense anger.  The radicals have been effective in helping recruit other radicals by displacing that anger on scapegoating all Americans.  This reality is harder to make sense of, as it requires us to examine our own deficiencies and faults.  This is also harder to reform.  Therefore, the easier solution is to create an oversimplified version of what is going on, that is easily swallowed by a public who is intensely afraid, thereby deferring political and social policy judgments to individuals in positions of power undermining the very essence of a democracy.

On the other hand, American Muslims play into this by attempting to disassociate themselves from religious symbols thereby reinforcing and strengthening the associations between symbols of Islam and extremism.  Again, this produces temporary relief in an effort to avoid being targeted, and creating long-term harm by reinforcing stereotypes.

Anxiety treatments in general work on the principle of engagement or facing the very feared stimulus.  Racism and categorical thinking is also demonstrated to be avoided through contact (known as contact theory), whereby there is non-superficial contact/engagement with the ‘other’ (unlike the typical saying, ‘I have a Muslim friend).  This is true at a micro level and at a macro level.  Therefore, temporary relief needs to be avoided in the interest of long standing solutions.  This means embracing the discomfort and leaning into the anxiety produced by engagement with the Muslim community, instead of marginalizing them, banning their entry (Flight) or fighting them.  The answer for American Muslims is to embrace religious symbols not handing them off to radicals to misrepresent or apologizing for all the crimes that they did not commit.  The reality is, individuals who hate, sacrifice a lot for it.  They are willing to die for hate and their twisted version of truth.  They have allowed their skewed morality and ethics to lean into the discomfort and literally sacrifice their lives for it.  The question remains: What are those who stand for truth and justice willing to give for it?  Until morally upright individuals will be brave enough to sacrifice at least half of the investment of the radicals, hate will prevail and will be continually reinforced in the masses through the propaganda of fear.  We have seen this historically, while different scapegoated groups in our history take turns being the collective whipping board for the problems of a society not ready to take accountability or make significant reforms in policy designed to address the roots of our problems.  The responsibility of leaning into this anxiety rests with each person as they make a choice in deciding whether their higher order morals and humanity will dictate the establishment of their attitudes.  Whether they will enact re-form, or be-formed by fear inducing messages of marginalization that lead to the collective isolation of those whom we don’t quite understand.