Fear is in the air. People everywhere have been navigating a potentially deadly new reality, living for months under the weight of a seemingly relentless pandemic. Economies, hobbled by the severe disruption to business as usual, struggle to regain a foothold, and many livelihoods hang in the balance. In addition, a US presidential election, arguably the most contentious in modern history, looms on the horizon, and some politicians are capitalizing on the fear-filled climate to achieve their personal, policy, and electoral goals.
This month’s Reading Frames essay, from University of California, Los Angeles, animal behavior researcher Daniel Blumstein, discusses the ecological power and evolutionary history of fear. The emotion has for millennia helped species avoid being eaten, and a balanced approach to risk-benefit analysis has helped some individuals prosper and multiply while others succumbed to starvation or predation due to an over- or under-abundance of caution, respectively. “Fear,” Blumstein writes, “is an essential ingredient in healthy ecosystems and helps maintain biodiversity.” But the emotion can sometimes overtake sound thinking, and that potential imbalance has utility in the political realm, Blumstein notes. “[Fear] makes us vulnerable to politicians with malevolent intentions who make compelling advertisements that efficiently tap into our well-honed neurophysiological fear systems.”
While editing Blumstein’s piece for this issue, I started to think of the overabundance of fear that lingers in our collective consciousness and colors our day-to-day existence. Not even my seven-year-old daughter is immune. “Dad, can you turn the news off?” she recently said in the car after hearing a radio report about an eight-year-old child who was shot in Chicago. “It scares me.” With a pang in my heart, I muted the radio. In that moment, fear was something to avoid, to run from. But perhaps we need to rethink our relationship with the emotion.
Blumstein writes that fear can be useful and constructive in many situations and across many species. The scared marmot that cowers in its burrow as a golden eagle soars above has its fear to thank for saving its skin. But if the marmot doesn’t balance that fear with the courage necessary to seek food and mates, it could starve or otherwise fail to pass on its genetic legacy. This is what we risk when fear runs amok. I think it’s what Franklin D. Roosevelt was getting at in the opening of his 1933 inaugural address: “. . . the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . .” What followed this frequently cited phrase really drives home FDR’s point: “. . . nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Far be it from me to disagree with FDR’s famous sentiment, which I interpret as a call to trust in the country’s leaders in a time of peril and upheaval as the US economy grappled with the Great Depression. But in our own challenging times, I would suggest that we embrace fear, rather than fearing or avoiding it. A healthy measure of fear can help us make smarter choices—wearing a mask at the grocery store, driving safely, investing wisely in the stock market, deferring to the advice of public health experts, etc. An overactive sense of fear can indeed be problematic, clouding our vision and leading us astray from our foundational ethics and morals. But on the other end of that spectrum, if we seek an existence free from fear, we are rejecting an elemental force that has shaped the course of our evolution and the functioning of our living planet.
We must strike the same balance that successful marmots and our forebears achieved: have enough fear to modulate our behavior in constructive ways, but not so much that we abandon our values or squander opportunities. This is where the use of fearmongering by some in the political realm is particularly nefarious. To accomplish short-term political goals, such as getting votes or donations, some individuals are perfectly OK with sowing the seeds of terror. And in doing so, they often push logic, science, rationality, and kindness to the periphery.
It is my sincere hope that as we progress through this challenging year, we realize that there are things that we should fear and that our trepidation, appropriately contextualized, will lead us in the right direction. But we must remain vigilant to avoid forsaking our humanity by engaging in an overactive, imagined, or exploited sense of dread. Let’s stop fearing fear so that we can understand it and use it to make ourselves, one another, and the world better.