Overriding Fear on the Playing Field and During Election Season
Illegal immigrants. Walls. Abortion. Nuclear disaster. Taking away your guns, your rights, your healthcare.
Republican or Democrat, moderate or radical, these messages come screaming across our televisions, computers, and phones. They dilute a complicated subject into a bit size message meant to sell you on their beliefs and values. Politicians may claim they are intended to inform, and perhaps some are, but it certainly seems that more often than not the intent is not educational nor even persuasive, it’s emotional. It’s to stoke fear.
Whenever you see a political ad comes across your screen proclaiming the imminent danger that a vote for someone’s opponent will put you in, that person is exploiting human psychology. Politicians are attempting to take advantage of our natural wiring, a reaction so deeply ingrained in us that we have little control over how we respond.
Whenever we encounter a threat or uncertainty, our body’s way to respond is by marshaling its defenses. In common vernacular, we have a stress response. Adrenaline and stress hormones shoot through our brains, preparing us for the impending doom. We’re used to this response before speaking in front of a large group, but not when we’re watching a debate. While not to the same degree as our pre-speech anxiety, a small stress response occurs whenever we feel fear. And when fear strikes, our minds jump into protective mode.
When our brain receives that message, it goes into action. As stress researcher Bruce McEwen put it, “When people feel uncertain and threatened, because of a changing internal or external environment, their brains enter a hypervigilant status to decrease uncertainty as fast as possible.” In other words, whenever we are faced with fear, our brain goes on a hunt to figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. How do we minimize the risk? When a politician invokes fear, he is trying to send a message that if you don’t vote for me, you are at risk.
Thankfully, our politician screaming about the end of days has the answer: Vote for him or her. In the world of advertisement, they call this technique a fear appeal. Companies play on consumer’s fears to motivate them to buy their product (or vote). And not surprisingly, research shows that such tactics work.
This isn’t a message for or against any candidate or party. Instead it’s a message of awareness. Just as slot machines are designed to draw you in and give the casino your money, the use of fear is also strategically designed to manipulate your behavior.
So as we sit back during this election cycle and watch our favorite politicians scream about the end of days and how the opposing party is going to launch you into a dreaded world of socialism, mob behavior, tyranny or any other fear-based diatribes, remember what they are trying to do. They aren’t trying to inform or even entertain. They are attempting to manipulate. To turn your body’s natural protective circuitry into their advantage.