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  • Cameron Mazzeo MSW, LCSW

The Seduction of Fear

Posted June 14th 2023

Written and Researched by Mx. Rowan Quinn

 

There's a modern belief among moderates, liberals, and progressives theorizing that conservatism is driven by hate. Most conservatives, however, see their cause as noble and protective, and view themselves as more empathetic than their less conservative peers. So what motivates people, across the political spectrum? Despite claims of IQ, Environmental Factors, even Brain Damage being suggested determining factors, one of the strongest links so far, is fear.



In several studies across the years, conservatives show a higher reaction in the right amygdala – the fear center of the brain – in situations of even minor risk or discomfort. When exposed to the same situations, more liberal-leaning brains have been equally repeatably shown to light up in the anterior cingulate cortex – the empathy and complex decision center.


Another study found similar results – “risk” verses “moral-emotional” language targets people differently, on a brain structure level. Conservative brains react more to “risk” words, such as “Dangerous,” “Safety,” and “Protect.” Liberals and progressives react more to “moral-emotional” words, such as “Harm,” “Compassionate,” and “Violate.”


Yet another study found fear levels and perceptions of threat vs safety can actually change minds on hot-button political issues. A Yale study found that, when giving self-identified conservatives a sense of safety and security, they changed viewpoints to more moderate, or even liberal, stances.


That may be why loneliness, fear, and a need for stability are repeatedly seen in right-wing extremist radicalization. Famous ex-neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini recounted in interviews how, as an adolescent, he felt instability over his heritage, how he felt insecure in himself and the world at large... And how the first person to offer him a “life-line” of acceptance, was a white supremacist.


This is a phenomenon seen in modern day, as well. Modern neo-Nazi groups have been found targeting and indoctrinating youth and young adults who are lonely, insecure, and feel ignored. Forums from 4chan and 9gag to kiwifarms and even some discord servers pull in people by offering feelings of superiority, community, and shared fear and anger. These recruitment hubs thrive off of well designed algorithmic content – the ability to pull people in with more innocuous videos and propaganda into deeper and deeper webs of misinformation, all designed to make the viewer feel special, seen, and understood.


This technique is not only found in the most violent of extremes, either. Modern day anti-trans rhetoric is the result of a carefully-coordinated effort to energize and radicalize conservatives after the legalization and national acceptance of gay marriage and rights.


While the modern state of human rights remains contested, there are at least a few groups available to help deradicalize adults and youth alike. Life After Hate is for those who feel in any way uncomfortable with the rising levels of violence, run by ex-extremists themselves to help others, free of judgement. They can be contacted by their website, and their helpline – 612-888-EXIT (3948) – where they can receive both calls and texts. Parents For Peace is run in a similar way, but for parents of targeted youth and young adults. They can also be reached via their website, or through their own helpline – 1-844-49-PEACE (1-844-497-3223) – call only, for now at least.


Hopefully with this information, we can help give everyone an environment where they feel safe, secure, and heard.



 



Works Cited:


Devon Children and Families Partnership. “Radicalisation and Extremism - How Children May Be at Risk.” Devon Childrens’ and Families Partnership, 2022, www.dcfp.org.uk/child-abuse/radicalisation-and-extremism/.


“ExitUSA Intro.” Life after Hate, www.lifeafterhate.org/exitusa/.


Garrett, R. Kelly, and Robert M. Bond. “Conservatives’ Susceptibility to Political Misperceptions.” Science Advances, vol. 7, no. 23, June 2021, p. eabf1234, https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abf1234.


Jost, John T., et al. “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 129, no. 3, 2003, pp. 339–375, faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/jost.glaser.political-conservatism-as-motivated-social-cog.pdf, https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339.


Kanai, Ryota, et al. “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults.” Current Biology, vol. 21, no. 8, Apr. 2011, pp. 677–680, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.017.


Leong, Yuan Chang, et al. “Conservative and Liberal Attitudes Drive Polarized Neural Responses to Political Content.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 44, 20 Oct. 2020, pp. 27731–27739, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2008530117.


Linden, Sander, et al. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics Revisited: An Ideological Asymmetry in Conspiratorial Thinking.” Political Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1, 24 June 2020, https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12681.


Nagourney, Adam, and Jeremy W. Peters. “How a Campaign against Transgender Rights Mobilized Conservatives.” The New York Times, 16 Apr. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/04/16/us/politics/transgender-conservative-campaign.html.


Napier, Jaime L., et al. “Superheroes for Change: Physical Safety Promotes Socially (but Not Economically) Progressive Attitudes among Conservatives.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 2, 30 Oct. 2017, pp. 187–195, https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2315. Accessed 5 May 2022.


Osborne, Danny, et al. “The Psychological Causes and Societal Consequences of Authoritarianism.” Nature Reviews Psychology, vol. Nat Rev Psychol 2, 220–232 (2023), no. Nat Rev Psychol 2, 220–232 (2023), 3 Mar. 2023, https://doi.org/10.1038/s44159-023-00161-4. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.


“Parents for Peace.” Parents for Peace, 17 May 2019, www.parents4peace.org/.


Pedersen, Walker S, et al. “Conservatism and the Neural Circuitry of Threat: Economic Conservatism Predicts Greater Amygdala–BNST Connectivity during Periods of Threat vs Safety.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 13, no. 1, 6 Nov. 2017, pp. 43–51, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsx133.


Picciolini , Christian. “A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him in — and How He Got Out.” NPR, 18 Jan. 2018, www.npr.org/transcripts/578745514. Accessed 26 May 2023.


Schreiber, Darren, et al. “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 2, 13 Feb. 2013, p. e52970, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052970.


Townsend, Mark. “How Far Right Uses Video Games and Tech to Lure and Radicalise Teenage Recruits.” The Guardian, 14 Feb. 2021, www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/14/how-far-right-uses-video-games-tech-lure-radicalise-teenage-recruits-white-supremacists.


Tritt, Shona M., et al. “Ideological Reactivity: Political Conservatism and Brain Responsivity to Emotional and Neutral Stimuli.” Emotion, vol. 16, no. 8, Dec. 2016, pp. 1172–1185, https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000150.


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