The Psychology of Defeating Fear: Low Self-Esteem and Hate Live in the Mind

Harvard psychologist Susan David explains the dangers of fear-mongering, the questionable ethics of journalism in spreading hate politics, and the disturbing way that repetition wears down our brain's resistance to fallacies and hate speech.

Susan David:  How do we thrive in a world where every which way we turn our fear is being activated by politicians, by the media and by the desperate events that are happening around us? What is really fascinating when we look at the brain research around fear is that our brains proxy anything that feels unfamiliar, incoherent or inaccessible as being unsafe. There is fascinating research that shows that when people have lower levels of self-esteem and they are in a job in which they are recognized and promoted, that promotion can feel incoherent to the person with low self-esteem. They have low self-esteem and they might be used to and expecting to be treated badly. So what is fascinating is the results showing that when people are promoted when they have a lower levels of self-esteem they are more likely to leave their jobs. Fear is an incredibly, incredibly powerful force in our lives and our brains are fairly immature in assessing anything that feels slightly incoherent for unfamiliar as unsafe.

What this might mean is that if you are used to hearing a story time and time again from a parent or from a partner about how you are not good enough, you are more likely to be drawn to that relationship because it feels familiar. The messaging that you are getting time and time again is connected with what you expect to get.

When we have politicians who are effectively demagogues who are inspiring fear in us, that fear leads to very particular and relatively predictable responses. When we are fearful there is this idea in psychological research of mortality say yes that when our mortality is threatened, when someone says oh this group of people is out to get you and we feel that we are actively being threatened we are more likely to stereotype, we are more likely as individuals to become bigoted, we are more likely to respond to messages that we hear time and time again even if they are against our values as somehow making sense to us.

How do we protect ourselves against this? Daniel Kahneman describes system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking. System 1 thinking is the intuitive response, the emotional visceral us and them that can sometimes arise out of fear. System 2 is the deliberate thoughtful examination of what is this person saying? Is it inline with how I really want to be? Is it connected with how I really want to raise my children? Is this a world that I want to support? When we are able to step back from our fear, not to pretend that it doesn't exist but to see our fear for what it is, fear, not a direction but data and an emotion. When we are able to step back from the fear and able to assess the fear and assess the messaging from the place of our values in a more deliberate thoughtful way, we are able to come to a place where we are ultimately protected from the demagoguery message, from the message of the fear and are able to move us ourselves forward in a way that is aliened with how we truly want to be and with a world that we truly want to live in.
When Donald Trump first started with all of his messaging we used to hear things that the politicians would say and we would be like oh my goodness how can the person possibly say that thing? But what happens over time is the more familiar something sounds, so the more we've heard it time and time again, even if the story is inaccurate, even if the story doesn't serve us the more we are likely to become immured to it and immune to it. So what I actually think from a media perspective is when I speak to people in the media about this they will often say well we simply go where the story takes us so we'll give as much coverage to wherever the story is at even if the story is one that insights hatred or violence. But I actually think that there is a very, very powerful ethical choice that the media makes in that.

Because when they expose and expose and expose and expose a story that is about hatred and a story that is about violence, as human beings the more familiar we become with that story the more immured we become to it. And I think we can see exactly this in the current elections that things that were said six months ago where everyone was horrified that a politician could possibly even prevail on people to listen to what was being said are now being met with oh there we go again. We somehow have become immured to the messaging because of the familiarity with which we are hearing it. And I think it's really important for us as a society and for us as voters to recognize that a familiar story it's not necessarily a truthful story. A familiar story might sound comfortable and our brains might proxy that story for meaning safe and therefore right and therefore comfortable, but that story doesn't necessarily reflect us or what we value. And it's really important to be able to step out from the safety of what might at this point feel familiar and really recognize the words for what they are. They are words that are inciting hatred and division and stereotyping in us as a society. And for many of us that's not the society in which we want to live. And I think there is a moral impetus on us to be able to step back from the story and step forward with our values.

Fear has always had a hold on us, but never with such fervor. Welcome to the end of times. We cannot sink lower. ISIS is at our door, our elected leaders are malevolent man-children, amber alerts are lighting up our phones, immigrants are bringing a plague of violence, someone was murdered while playing Pokemon GO, climate change is flooding our homes and starving our crops. How can we go on?

But, breathe deep and let the clouds of panic part; it turns out there’s very little correlation between the above mindset and reality. Terrorism, despite it reported epidemic, is less prevalent in the Western world now than it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Crime is decreasing. Immigrants actually lower crime in gateway cities, and don’t affect crime rates elsewhere. Rates of rape and sexual assault have been declining for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Despite Zika and Ebola hype, infectious diseases are down. The list continues and is wonderfully documented at length in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

However, that’s not what we like to hear, because we don’t feel safe. This good news feels inaccurate. Why? Well, we have the non-stop news cycle to thank for that, and social platforms that turn every smartphone user into an independent correspondent capturing every horror from the grocery aisle to the protest march. We are experiencing an oversaturation of fearful messages.

"What is really fascinating when we look at the brain research around fear is that our brains proxy anything that feels unfamiliar, incoherent or inaccessible as being unsafe," says Harvard psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. We like familiarity. We like it so much that hearing that terrorism is likely to strike us personally at any moment is somehow more comforting than the message that it’s not, because the fear is more familiar to us at this stage. We’ve come to trust it. If we hear something often enough, we associate familiarity with truth.

It even works on a personal level, where people are drawn to those who hurt them and belittle them purely because the message is familiar. It feels cozy and you’ve been there before. You know how this works. It’s scarier to try something new.

And of course fear is heavily embedded in politics. We have politicians who are effectively demagogues, who aim to inspire fear and cement our bond to them by hyperbolizing a threat to our mortality. So how can we repel deceptive messaging and see clearly?

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman identified two kinds of thinking: system 1 thinking and system 2 thinking. David explains: "System 1 thinking is the intuitive response, the emotional visceral ‘us’ and ‘them’ that can sometimes arise out of fear. System 2 is the deliberate thoughtful examination of: what is this person saying? Is it in line with how I really want to be? Is it connected with how I really want to raise my children? Is this a world that I want to support?’

David says that if we can step back from our fear and see it for what it is – manipulated panic rather than data – we can protect ourselves from the demagoguery message and re-align with our true values.

It is difficult to do, and the repetition makes it harder to see straight. Here David draws on the 2016 US election as an example. "… We used to hear things that the politicians would say and we would be like, ‘Oh my goodness how can the person possibly say that thing?’ But what happens over time is the more familiar something sounds… even if the story is inaccurate, even if the story doesn't serve us, the more we are likely to become immured to it and immune to it." Things that were said in the election six months ago that horrified people are now being met with a light-hearted ‘Oh, there we go again’.

David questions the media ethics in pushing out stories that overexpose inaccurate messages of fear that could incite violence and hatred. It familiarizes us to an incorrect message, leaving our values open to corruption.

Susan David's most recent book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Bonus pack is available here.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

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There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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