Why Are Americans So Afraid?

Facts take a backseat to deeply ingrained fears.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bethge/Shutterstock

At a rally in North Carolina in December 2016, a 12-year-old girl said to candidate Donald Trump, “I’m scared. What are you going to do to protect this country?”

“You know what, darlin’?” Trump replied. “You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”

Throughout his campaign, Trump played off the rising fear of the American public. His us-vs.-them rhetoric eroded people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media and augmented the already fragile line of truth. Trump knew Americans were afraid and that they would vote accordingly.

But there is a remarkable dissonance between what seems to be and what is. According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

In most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The great American crime decline of the 1990s proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present. Among 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in homicide in the past 15 years.

“You often hear people saying, on both sides of the political divide, that the world is a mess,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution. “The world is not a mess. It’s just messy.” The collapse of the existing order in the Middle East, Cirincione said, is one manifestation of the world’s messiness. “But the world itself is doing pretty darn good. We do not have major powers in conflict. We have small wars. We do not have major wars.”

Yet a Gallup poll found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years. According to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears, some 70 percent of our citizenry is afraid of threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyber warfare and government corruption.

So how is it that we are living in what is arguably the safest time in history, yet we as a country exist in a culture of fear?

Christopher Fettweis, author of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy, says it is because “our fear is not based on an intellectual conclusion, it’s a belief.” America’s fear has become a framework of belief, surpassing far beyond the plasticity of opinions. And as history has proved time and time again, beliefs are near impossible to change.

The reality is “facts” don’t mean much in the way of beliefs. Telling a person, who has the sincerest gut belief, the statistic that more Americans are killed each year by furniture than by terrorism becomes somehow unconvincing, or rather disagreeable. Political psychologists call this tendency to conform assessments of information to some goal or end extrinsic to accuracy “motivated reasoning.” In other words, people believe what they want to believe. This cognitive process infiltrates everything from us convincing ourselves a gluten-free cupcake is healthy to our groundless denial of climate change and gun violence.

So why is this process so crucial in understanding the culture of fear in America? It perpetuates it. Because humans will dismiss rational thinking for the sake of reconfirming their identity, their fears will eclipse facts. A conservative turns on the news to see a terrorist attack in London. Then he goes on Twitter to see fellow conservatives’ rant about building a wall and protecting our borders. His fear is legitimized within their cushy network of familiarity. If the conservative encountered the fact that “zero refugees from countries included in the president’s travel ban have killed anyone in terrorist attacks on American soil,” he would ignore it, because it does not fit with his worldview. The individual does not conform to adjust his perspective, but emerges unconvinced and indignantly dogged. According to psychologist Tom Gilovich, this is because the fundamental questions we ask ourselves in response to particular information conforms to what we want to believe. “For desired conclusions,” he writes, “it is as if we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?,’ but for disagreeable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’”

People do not confront new information looking for truth, but rather looking for their truth and this means facts take a backseat to deeply ingrained fears.

These fears are sustained through media coverage. Nearly every time we switch on the news, a building is in flames, a new virus has swept a new nation, or a man with a gun has wreaked havoc on an elementary school. It seems a string is holding the world together. The overwhelming coverage of terrorist attacks, shootings and other violent episodes are so entwined in our daily lives that their imminence is inflated. “Your day-to-day experience is that terrible things are happening and they could happen to you tomorrow,” says Cirincione. For those who have not made it beyond the U.S. border, their perceptions of the outside world are shaped solely by this media diet. And what makes news coverage overseas? People having bad things happen, doing bad things to each other; violence and degradation.

To the individual, this news coverage is a consistent reminder of our own mortality. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, when confronted with thoughts of our own mortality people appear to behave more conservatively by shunning and even punishing outsiders and those who threaten the status of their cherished worldviews. This helps explain how America’s current culture of fear has become synonymous with the fear of terrorism. Despite the fact that the chances of being a victim of terrorism are roughly the same as that of being hit by lightning, a majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Terrorist attacks carry the powerful quality of uncertainty. Since 1973, psychologists have argued that political conservatism as an ideological belief system is significantly related to concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty. According to a study done by NYU, we respond to uncertainty as we would respond to a threat—with fear. As death reminders become more prevalent, society becomes more antagonistic toward those with different beliefs and values; people become more fearful of the other. The common rhetoric turns to that of us-vs.-them. We feel we have to build a literal wall to separate ourselves from the big, bad existential other. In this world of inflamed rhetoric, Muslims become terrorists, factual probability becomes irrelevant and doing nothing becomes weakness.

This mentality has cost the U.S. roughly hundreds of billions of dollars annually on counter-terrorism efforts, yet terrorism is rising. In 2015, terrorist attacks occurred in almost 100 countries, up from 59 in 2013, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. In America, the numbers are different: 24 people have died in America from terrorist attacks since 9/11, less than two per year. These 24 lives are important, but so are the nearly 45,000 annual deaths associated with lack of health insurance; the 37,000 annual deaths from road crashes each year; the over 59,000 who die annually due to the opioid epidemic; and the 99,000 who died from preventable healthcare-associated infections. And the list goes on.

Given these statistics, how the government chooses to allocate our resources comes as a shock. To combat the most likely cause of death, heart disease, the government contributes only $2 billion. And just $300 million is devoted to research on the third most likely cause of death, strokes. The U.S. Congress funded cancer research through the NCI with just over $5 billion in 2017. Yet as Americans we allow this to continue largely because we’re too lazy to crosscheck the facts and confront the issue logically. As long as terrorism pervades the media, the government will continue to put money where the fear is, whether logical or not at all.

Telling people not to fear terror in this hyperactive age is like trying to convince a person standing in the rain that it is a sunny day. Their experience, their worldview, their very sense of self says otherwise. This is not to say that Americans do not have the right to be afraid. Fear is an instinctive response, but our heightened response should be redirected to realistic fears, the things that might actually kill us.

Author: Guy Saperstein

Guy T. Saperstein was a civil rights attorney for 25 years. He was included in the National Law Journal's list of "The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."