Fear and Persuasion: The 200 Year Old Case for Life Long Education

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For many, many generations families have routinely devoted an hour or two, and sometimes more, each week to attending church services and Sunday school classes to receive instruction on religious beliefs and its application to life in society.  According to a Pew Research, about 37% of adult Americans claim to attend church services at least once a week.  I’m going to question this practice and ask why people would devote such time and adherence to the maintenance and application of religious beliefs and not at least an equal amount of time and attention to the more dynamic body of empirical knowledge to be found in science and secular academics?  I raise this question in relationship to a consideration of how fear operates on cognitive decision-making processes in social and legislative matters, often leading to maladaptive and sometimes historically tragic outcomes.

The Cognitive Aspects of Fear-Induced Decision-Making

Generally speaking, when we identify a prevalent psychological phenomenon that has widespread impact and undesirable, maladaptive consequences, we direct one of our national agencies attention to the issue in order to increase public awareness and muster efforts to address the problematic impact that the issue may have on those affected.  This is the sort of response we’re accustomed to across the spectrum of caring for our civilization in addressing crime, healthcare, housing, education and civil rights.  But when it comes to the long-standing, widespread issue of fear-induced irrational decision-making and the related actions that often follow, public acknowledgment, concern and attention to the problem seem to be largely non-existent.

Evidence of malfunctioning decision-making and behavior rooted in the cognitive processing of fear stimulus is well-known.  Many of the most shameful events in history can be attributed to the issue – the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, are well-known examples and many of the post 9/11 policies such as watch-listing and mass surveillance are now suspect as well.  Many commentators on the current presidential race perceive Donald Trump’s demonization of immigrants and Muslims in particular, to be an example of the issue, characterized as manipulating the electorate through “fear-mongering”  and North Carolina’s recent enactment of legislation perceived as authorizing discrimination is judged as a reaction to an irrational fear.

But in each of these examples, it takes time for reality to catch up with perceptions and facts to be separated from beliefs in order to arrive at more well-reasoned judgments regarding which fears are rational, which are irrational and what actions should be taken in response.  We seem to be content with only a post-facto response to some of the most heinous events in our history.  A more recent, clear-cut example of the maladaptive, undesirable consequences of fear inspired maladaptive decision-making and behavior may be useful as a case study on how fear can lead to maladaptive decisions and actions.

To begin, it will be helpful to get an understanding how fear-induced decision-making operates and better identify where and how it sometimes goes wrong.  For that task, a clear-cut example of the maladaptive, undesirable consequences of fear inspired maladaptive decision-making and behavior that occurred last week provides us such an opportunity.

Reports emerged last week about several Burger King restaurants where employees had suddenly fled their stores and then turned and smashed out all the windows after being frightened into action by a prank caller who convinced the store’s personnel of an impending explosion from a supposed gas leak in the building.  According to the Washington Post, this has occurred in three different states over the past few months, including Illinois, California, and Oklahoma.

Looking at this example we can identify some of the essential components common to irrational fear-induced decision-making and behavior. These components involve mindset, authority, urgency, and duty.

Undetected gas leaks can and do cause building explosions.  And such events can be deadly.  These are dramatic events when they occur and they are generally well publicized, leading to widespread awareness of the dangers associated with a gas leak.  This creates the fertile mindset; encoded beliefs accorded a high level of emotional valence that gas leaks can be dangerous and deadly.  If this cognitively encoded belief is triggered the limbic system will produce an immediate cortisol response in the brain.

The next element is authority.  Authority implies trust. Authority is a label we attach to sources of information who have been accorded a higher level of trust.  In human cognition, inferring trust in authorities tends to occur at a very low threshold.  In the case of the Burger King pranks, the caller identified himself as a fire department employee.  The caller’s credibility was further bolstered by having some professional sounding knowledge about the gas systems and its components.  If the caller had sounded like an immature teenager it’s pretty unlikely the employees would have taken the threat seriously.

The next element of the phenomena is urgency.  We are biologically programmed to accord fear our highest level of attention. In evolutionary biology, the fear response is considered to be a highly conserved trait.  It’s deeply rooted in our survival instinct and it usurps other cognitive processes when triggered.  In most cases of fear induced maladaptive decision-making, a sense of urgency, real or not, requires converting decision-making into action in a way that bypasses more diligent fact-finding and validation processes.

And finally, there is the element of duty.  Irrational, fear-induced decision-making can be problematic on an individual level but the greatest impact arises when its actions affects others.  Duty is the call to action that makes this cognitive malfunction an important public health matter. It’s the call to duty that extends the effects of irrational, fear induced decision-making onto the lives of others.  When fear is evoked, when perceptions are shaped by authority and when a response is urgent, a sense of duty legitimizes actions to impose those conclusions, right or wrong, rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, over the welfare of others.

Clearly some of the examples cited earlier are recognized as terrible and tragic events in our past that are a direct result of fear induced, maladaptive decision-making failures. And clearly the issue continues as we see in the behavior of the Burger King employees as well as in the arguments behind the anti-LBGT legislation passed last month by the North Carolina legislature.

So one must then ask; why is this phenomenon not addressed as a public health concern?  Why do we allow such demonstrably dangerous maladaptive behavior to continue with very little public response?  Does ignoring it serve a purpose?  If it does then what is that purpose?  Is the lack of public concern a rationally arrived at decision supported by facts or is there some phenomena at work which causes us not to challenge the issue?

Some Current Perspectives

For one view on these questions, I took a look at  Corey Robin’s 2004 book, “Fear: The History of a Political Idea.”  In its review of Robin’s book, Publishers Weekly said:

In a review of Robin’s book, Publishers Weekly said:

As our faith in positive political principles recedes, he argues, we turn to fear as the justifying language of public life. We may not know the good, but we do know the bad. So we cling to fear, abandoning the quest for justice, equality, and freedom. But as fear becomes our intimate, we understand it less. In a startling reexamination of fear’s greatest modern interpreters–Hobbes, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Arendt–Robin finds that writers since the eighteenth century have systematically obscured fear’s political dimensions, diverting attention from the public and private authorities who sponsor and benefit from it. For fear, Robin insists, is an exemplary instrument of repression–in the public and private sector. Nowhere is this politically repressive fear–and its evasion–more evident than in contemporary America.” (emphasis added)

Robin suggests that as a society, we not only accept, but in fact, embrace, fear because it unites us.  Fear, according to Robin, has utility as it provides a structure against which we can define our beliefs.

In a follow-up article published in 2012, Robin offers some new thoughts on the politics of fear where he specifically discounts the notion that any real psychological malfunction is the cause.

“First, the politics of fear is far less dependent upon the actual psychic experience of the public than analysts would have us think. While many believe that the individual emotions of the citizenry propel the policies the government pursues, I see little evidence of that. Even if we assume that each and every member of the public is experiencing fear, that experience still doesn’t explain the policies. A frightened population could just as easily inspire the government to pursue policies that would dampen rather than arouse fear. It is politics that produces policies, not fear.”

“In any event, the public’s putative experience of fear cannot explain the persistence, indeed the enhancement, of the kind of government policies and practices we’ve seen in the last five years or so. A combination of bureaucratic inertia and partisan interests, in which neither party has much incentive to do anything on behalf of a persecuted minority—the sorry stuff, in other words, of old-fashioned political science—explains far more than do speculation and experiments in social or cognitive psychology.
Democracy Journal Fall, 2011, No 22 – The Politics of Fear see: http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/22/the-politics-of-fear/

As the old saying goes, “there’s safety in numbers” and there is no question that Robin is at least partially correct: fear is an alliance builder.  But the premise here is not that fear is an illegitimate emotion or that all fear is maladaptive.  Rather the premise is that fear can and does trigger faulty cognitive decision-making outcomes that have substantial and often tragic consequences which warrant a public health response.  And the fact that this maladaptive cognitive process is frequently and systematically exploited for political purposes should make this an even graver concern.

We’ve seen one example how an appropriate response might be constructed as it has taken shape in clinical medical practice with the widespread adoption of what is called “evidenced based practice” standards which include:

– employing the best available research evidence bearing on whether and why a treatment works,

– using clinical expertise (clinical judgment and experience) to rapidly identify each patient’s unique health state and diagnosis, their individual risks and benefits of potential interventions, and

– taking into account client preferences and values

It’s important to note here that these are standards that are being applied at the beginning of the decision-making process and not retrospectively as we currently do with the practice of political decision-making.  In our current political system, we rely on a retrospective system, winding its way through elections or the judicial system and ultimately residing with the Supreme Court, all of which takes place after the damage has occurred and sometimes still fails to correct faulty decision-making.

Christina Wells of the University of Missouri School of Law has crafted a detailed examination of the psychological phenomena at issue using the historical record of the Court’s Dennis decision which failed to stop the internment of Japanese-Americans based on nothing more than race and religion during World War II.

“In times of national crisis, passion and fear often grip the country, thereby causing oppressive actions toward allegedly threatening groups or individuals. Such actions, while lamentable, are nevertheless understandable, perhaps even predictable. Faced with a threat to the nation, fear and prejudice generate demand for action. Congress and executive officials respond, often to the detriment of civil liberties. When those actions are challenged in court, however, we expect judges to respond differently. Judges are supposed to be above the political and emotional fray, dispassionately resolving disputes regarding civil liberties with reference only to the law and facts of the case.”

“History, however, tells another story. Time and again, courts, including the Supreme Court, have deferred to questionable, if not outright illegitimate, government actions taken in the name of national security.”
Fear and Loathing in Constitutional DecisionMaking – p 219 see: http://scholarship.law.missouri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1395&context=facpubs

Wells offers a prescription for the Courts which consists of a series of questions which somewhat parallel the evidenced based clinical medical practice approach noted above.  Taking Wells questions and paraphrasing them for a more general application to fear related decision-making might look something like:

  • What is the specific harm alleged
  • Is there direct evidence of a causal link between the fear and the alleged harm?
  • What is the imminence of the stated harm?

Wells goes on to say,

Psychological evidence suggests that these kinds of questions are more likely to result in reasoned judicial decision-making than the Court’s current approach. Specifically, such questions-when explicitly dealt with in opinions-force courts to account for their decisions, which should improve their decision-making.

On a general level, this phenomenon of “accountability” simply refers to the need for one person to answer to another. From a psychological perspective, accountability involves “the implicit or explicit expectation that one may be called on to justify one’s beliefs, feelings, and actions to others” and “also usually implies that people who do not provide a satisfactory justification for their [own] actions will suffer negative consequences … [while] people who do provide compelling justifications will experience positive consequences.”

Psychologists know that accountability can improve judgment and decision-making…  [R]esearch shows that accountability can cause decision-makers to be more self critical, more willing to consider alternative points of view, more willing to anticipate possible objections to proposed courses of action, and more willing to consider the possibility that they are wrong.  Accountability can also attenuate biases related to the availability heuristic ‘ and the overconfidence bias.  [Ibid]

Notice that both Wells recommendations and the evidence-based medical decision-making approach cited earlier, employ a methods based process for determining the relevant facts and subsequent action.  Perhaps if Wells recommendations were applied to the legislative process, sound fact-finding and decision-making processes might take place before harm is done rather than after.

News Media Fails to Accomplish the Task

Democracy has always recognized the importance of a well-informed electorate.  In the words of Jefferson, “Though the people may acquiesce, they cannot approve what they do not understand.”  Abraham Lincoln said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”

Traditionally, this task of maintaining an informed electorate has been left to the media.  Again to quote Jefferson, “If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”  But the reality is that  Politifact, Sunday morning talk shows, and widely televised campaign debates haven’t solved the problem.  Despite the “democratization of information” brought about by the internet, neither the courts, nor the legislatures, nor the public, can be counted on to follow well-reasoned decision-making processes, free from the influence of irrational fear.

Which leads me to think that we need to look not at the supply side of information production but rather at the consumption side of the equation.

The Associated Press and the American  Press Institute (www.mediainsight.org) have just released a lengthy study of the media in society with the report’s headline proclaiming  “The vast majority of Americans don’t trust the news media.”  So, how bad is it?  According to the API/AP report, just six percent of the people polled in their study say they have a high degree of confidence in the media.  Forty percent of those polled cited specific instances of perceived errors that eroded their confidence in today’s media as a source for factual, accurate information.  Roughly forty percent of those surveyed indicated that they don’t keep up with the news on a daily basis.

All of this is reason enough for concern but there’s a deeper issue.  Another finding in the report notes that for a majority of those polled – as high as seventy percent among millennials – news consumption operates through a socially curated selection process.  Those consumers get their news based on what’s promoted within their social network.  Maintaining an informed public through the passive publication of information will always be subject to the weaknesses inherent to the self-selected bias readers naturally employ as they exercise their freedom to choose what to read and who to believe. And if technology now leads to subject matter which is curated by the consumer’s social network, then the potential for exposing the readers to alternate points of view or competing facts becomes even further diminished.

The Case for Public Agency Response

The basis of fear-induced decision-making failures emanates from a failure to employ critical thinking methodology in the decision-making process.  This is a recognized fact that has been addressed in the decision-making methodology adopted by the medical community and recommended for the judiciary as discussed above.

So given that democracy is ultimately governed by the electorate shouldn’t the same prescription for well-reasoned decision-making be applied there as well?  That doesn’t seem like a controversial idea.  In fact, it seems like a pretty important idea if we really want to have a well-functioning government and society.

Developing and maintaining an informed public in order to facilitate their role in our constitutional framework of government was a vital concern of the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson and Madison.  Many of their discussions wrestled with the man’s right to self-determination and recognition that the passions of man often led to ill-conceived actions.

Colleen A. Sheehan, Professor of Political Science at Villanova University, Director of the Ryan Center for Free Institutions and the Public Good, and past legislator in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, discusses this in the context of Jefferson’s ‘Earth belongs to the living’ letter to Madison in her book “James Madison and the Spirit of Republican Self-Government.” [2009, Cambridge University Press]  In the letter, Jefferson starts out discussing the laws of inheritance where he carefully lays out the principles under which the members of society cannot indebt future generations to such an extent as to rob them of ownership and control over the land.  He then extends this principle to constitutional law, stating, “On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.”  Jefferson’s proposal was that all laws ought to have an expiration date that was, in general, not longer than the expected lifespan of the generation of those people who enacted it.

Madison, on the other hand, recognized the folly of passion that often took control of the public’s decision-making and worked to temper Jefferson’s more ideological prescription for a constitutional convention every generation.  Many historians and constitutional scholars have pointed to Madison’s writings as a basis for Anton Scalia’s strict constructionist approach to the application of constitutional law but, as Sheehan points out, that’s an oversimplification of Madison’s writings.  “In Madison’s view,” Sheehan writes, “the power of passion and interest, as well as the power of opinion, are sown in the nature of man… In free societies, improvements depend on the constant forming and reforming of public morality and public opinion in an environment conducive to the conditions of freedom.”  Sheehan then goes on to elucidate Madison’s application of divine principles as they apply to his compact theory of government that derive from:

the first principles of natural law and the idea that all human beings are created equal; it imposes on members of a constitutional society the obligation to protect other human beings in their equal rights to life, liberty, and self-government. “

This is the “divine” principle which establishes “the legitimate authority of the people” as the just basis of government.  This, Sheehan says, is the basis of “not only the right to govern, but the obligation to govern according to the moral principals that legitimate its rule.”

It wasn’t until after the turn of the century that Jefferson eventually worked out his response to the “passion” concerns which had deterred Madison from more fully embracing Jefferson’s “land belongs to the living” philosophy.  Jefferson, Sheehan writes, “was guided by an ‘extreme version’ of the moral sense philosophy of some of the eighteenth century  Scottish thinkers and the ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘perfectability’ introduced by Rousseau and developed by various French theorists, most notably Condorcet.”  Jefferson believed that man possessed an instinctual moral sense of justice which was “as much a part of our constitution as that of feeling, seeing, or hearing; as a wise Creator must have seen to be necessary in an animal destined to live in society.”

Jefferson, Sheehan notes, believed strongly in education and also believed, according to Jean Yarbough, that one’s moral sense did not “spontaneously result in virtuous actions but rather requires a long process of development and habituation before it produces the steady inclination to virtue that is called character.”  Thus, it was, 200 years ago, in 1816, that Jefferson wrote:

Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times.”

Of Condorcet, Jefferson wrote, “I believe with Condorcet.. that [the human] mind is perfectible to a degree of which we cannot as yet form any conception.”  And later Jefferson wrote in discussing the formation of the political parties, “One of the questions, ” on which our parties took different sides was on the improvability of the human mind in science, in ethics, in government, etc.  [We} possess… too much science not to see how much is still ahead of [us}, unexplained and unexplored.  [Our] own consciousness must place [us] as far before our ancestors as in the rear of our posterity.”

Condorcet, according to Sheehan, “believed that all errors of the human mind are grounded in philosophical mistakes which themselves are connected with physical errors… Condorcet believed in the possibility of developing a science of politics and morality, which, along the same lines as the physical sciences, cannot be distributed by human passions and interests.  Improvements in the precision of language will overcome errors of reasoning, which will spur men to reflect upon their conduct and lead to advances in moral practice ‘not less than that of science itself'”

In Jefferson’s last address to Congress in 1821 he said:

“The value of science to a republican people, the security it gives to liberty by enlightening the minds of its citizens, the protection it affords against foreign power, the virtue it inculcates, the just emulation of the distinction it confers on nations foremost in it; in short, its identification with power, morals, order and happiness – which merits to it premiums of encouragement rather than repressive taxes – are considerations that should always be present and bear with their just weight.”

So there we have it.  Since the founding of our nation, our form of government has been constructed to be dependent on the will and decisions of an informed public – but we’ve left out the key ingredient:  the continuous improvement of the mind of the public that is a necessary component to achieving the expected result – an informed public that actually understands the issues about which it is entrusted to decide.

At precisely the age at which the citizens of our society are granted their individual rights and responsibilities in the governance of their communities and our nation, we cease to provide any further education.  At precisely the point when citizens make their debut as a full member of society, we cease the process of developing their minds and their intellect and thus their capacity to make enlightened use of the experience which they are now acquiring.  Compounding the problem is the fact that some percentage of our citizenry partakes of a course of religious development without the benefit of further secular education and development as a necessary compliment. As Jefferson said in the Apportionment Bill of 1792, “though the people may acquiesce, they cannot approve what they do not understand.”

“Understanding” does not just naturally arise as a passive by-product of information.  As Carl Bereiter, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto and a member of the National Academy of Education explains, understanding implies abilities and dispositions with respect to an object of knowledge sufficient to support intelligent behavior.  Bereiter, along with his colleague Marlene Scardamalia, has noted that as we have come to better understand how knowledge is acquired

“there is a greater emphasis on collaborative rather than individual inquiry, the tentative nature of empirical laws is more often noted, and argumentation has become an important part of some approaches.”  Ours is a knowledge-creating civilization. A growing number of “knowledge societies” (Stehr, 1994), are joined in a deliberate effort to advance all the frontiers of knowledge. Sustained knowledge advancement is seen as essential for social progress of all kinds and for the solution of societal problems.

From a pragmatic standpoint, a more useful distinction is between knowledge about and knowledge of something. Knowledge about sky-diving, for instance, would consist of all the declarative knowledge you can retrieve when prompted to state what you know about sky-diving. Such knowledge could be conveniently and adequately represented in a concept net. Knowledge of sky-diving, however, implies an ability to do or to participate in the activity of sky-diving. It consists of both procedural knowledge (e.g, knowing how to open a parachute and guide its descent) and declarative knowledge that would be drawn on when engaged in the activity of sky-diving (e.g., knowledge of equipment characteristics and maintenance requirements, rules of particular events). “Knowledge Building: Theory, Pedagogy, and Technology” Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter

Compounding the problem inherent to the failure to provide for the continuous education of our adult population, some members of society do continue with the institutional development of their religious thought; pursuing such things as stated in the purpose of the Southern Baptist’s which is “eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the gospel, any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Bob LaGarde, April 2016