Mind Matters — Do You Fear Others?

Ever get on a subway? Or any mode of public transit, especially in a city? Recently, I rode the T, the subway system of Boston and wondered about how we conjure up the “fear of others.” Encapsulated in a tunneled tube, people mostly are respectful of this anonymous intimacy of bodies without intrusion into another’s tiny piece of personal space. Jostled next to one another, people read books, listen to their headphones that transport them to other realms. It would be ludicrous in this situation to fear the other for the way they look or how they are dressed or for what color their skin is or for what language they speak. Of course, there are people to watch out for, but hypervigilance and being paranoid of everyone destroys discernment and good judgment for when a real threat arises. If everything you perceive is red (read dangerous), then the red flag of your internal warning system or the metaphorical red light of a “stop!” is not seen or heeded.

So how do we come to a “fear of others”? Brian Resnick (Vox, Jan. 30, 2017) addresses this in his essay “Seven Lessons from Psychology That Explain the Irrational Fear of Outsiders.” Fear is an emotion that is easily manipulated by politicians so it behooves us to recognize the psychological underpinnings of how we get set up to fear others. Our prehistoric roots reside in our reptilian brain that quietly categorizes “us” versus “them” mentally. Unless we are acutely aware, we are easily triggered into buying into the artificial separation of “us” versus “them.” Next step is that if our behavior is shaped to fear outsiders then we also dehumanize them. If this fear is fomented by hateful rhetoric, we exaggerate threat. We latch onto singular anecdotes that exacerbate the fear rather than factual data that would give us evidence to the contrary.

The good news, says Resnick, is that it is possible to teach people “to turn fear into something more positive.” Because “negative reaction to refugees is more emotional than rational,” psychological research has found that statistical evidence cannot sway such emotion. However, if negative emotions (“refugees are dangerous”) can be overridden with positive emotions (“refugees are human beings who need help”), it is possible to change people’s fear reactions. “Us” and “them” are, after all, arbitrary artifices, no more real than saying a resident in Pennsylvania is more human than that “other” resident in Delaware.

Also of note: the American Psychological Association has drafted a letter to President Trump advocating the ending of migrant family separation and the signing of a bill to increase funding for humanitarian care. The APA cited research on the “psychological harm experienced by children and caretakers alike.”

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