You’re on a lifeboat, drifting in the South Pacific. You have a makeshift sail and a handful of food and water; it won’t last long. You have two survival options:
1. Sail west with the wind 1500 miles to nearest land 2. Sail south 1600 miles, then take the wind east 3000 miles
It seems obvious that you should take the first option.
But 200 years ago, a group of shipwrecked whalers chose the second option, spurred by a rumor that cannibals lived on the islands to the west. Their decision, which would prove fatal to many of the sailors, is a cautionary tale about misinformation and fear.
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“Fear is an act of the imagination,” said Karen Thompson Walker. “Not just an act of imagination, but an act of storytelling — a kind of unconscious storytelling. So our fears are announcing these terrible stories to us.”
Walker is a novelist whose scary stories explore common fears in uncommon circumstances. She said the famous shipwreck of the Essex of Nantucket is a warning about the power of fear.
“In the middle of the ocean they had this idea that there were cannibals in that direction that really just activated some kind of primal, imaginative and salacious version of the story. And that story of like, ‘what if we arrive on the island and were eaten by cannibals’ was more powerful in their brains than this kind of maybe more subtle but more serious, ultimately, risk of starvation," she said. "And so what happened is they chose the long route and most of them did not survive because they ran out of food. And by the time the last survivors were rescued, they themselves had participated in a form of cannibalism just to survive.”
Neuroscientists believe fear is an important component of consciousness that helps us respond to threats. It’s a combination of chemical processes in the limbic system, sometimes called the emotional brain, and the neocortex, which is responsible for the imagination.
Think about what that means. Your threat response and your imagination work together. So anyone who can access your fears is, in a sense, gaining access to your imagination.
“It’s natural to be fearful of things,” said Travis Boyce of San Jose State University, the co-editor of a volume of essays called "Historicizing Fear." “But we have to be reasonable and rational and critical thinking as human beings and rely on evidence. So in this case, with this unfound narrative that there were cannibals, you know, [it] cost them their lives.”
“It’s people who eat other people," said his co-editor, Winsome Chunnu, director of the Multicultural Center at Ohio University. And so immediately that is going to incur a response in me, rational or not, because that’s how fear works.”
“It’s not always rational," she added.
Their essay, "I Want To Get Rid of My Fear," highlights the connection between fear triggers and the responses they provoke.
“There are consequences for believing or buying into unfounded claims, which is fear,” said Boyce. He pointed to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which occurred after "millions of Americans were fed lies about voter fraud, especially voter fraud by Black people, which resulted in folks literally taking [up] their pitchforks."
"There is no evidence that the 2020 election had mass voter fraud, so there are consequences to these things," he said.
But voter fraud is only one example of a fear trigger that has been used in politics. In their essay, Boyce and Chunnu analyzed Trump’s presidential nomination acceptance speech from the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement," Trump said at the time.
In fact, FBI crime data available when that speech was written, from 2015, shows violent crime was near a record low. Violent crime numbers during President Obama's administration are the lowest on the FBI’s chart, which reaches back to 1979.
Boyce and Chunnu said this statement is designed to trigger a fear response. The speech lists some statistics, then concludes with a scary scenario straight out of "The Walking Dead": “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
Christiane Marie Abu Sarah is an historian of aggression and violence. She said horror movie imagery is a classic tactic politicians use to trigger a fear response.
“Because that limbic system is very old, because it's got some very basic programming, the strategies the politicians use to tap into it are all fairly basic,” says Abu Sarah. “They have to set a scene, if you will, just like a horror movie sets the scene to make you afraid by turning down the lights, by putting scary music on in the background, by concealing things behind a corner. Politicians have to go through a similar process, if you will. They have to make these other people look dark and shadowy. They use the same language that you would see kind of in a horror film to make these fears look big and scary."
Chunnu notes that it’s a specific type of fear, fear of the "other," that amplifies anti-immigrant rhetoric and in turn, an anti-immigrant response.
“It’s about the other,” she said. “We are awesome, it’s these other people that are making us bad, and if only we can keep them out of our country, out of our cities, out of our state, then we will have a perfect union. Light bulb! That is not what it’s going to take.”
Essentially, othering is the reductive action of categorizing people as subaltern natives, or people who should be socially, politically, and geographically excluded from power. It’s a practice of exclusion based on differences, and suggests there’s only one acceptable social or cultural standard.
And othering has an ugly history.
Abu Sarah says it’s easy to find examples of fear and othering used as fuel to achieve political goals.
“So everybody knows about the Red Scare. Most people don't know at the exact same time there was something called the Lavender Scare, which was a scare involving trying to root out homosexuals from the government. So at that time, Senator [Joseph] McCarthy tried to root out what they called 'sexual psychopaths' from the U.S. government and in a very horrific way mobilized fear in order to advance a certain political agenda. And what you see in these situations is they’re weaponizing fear in order to appeal to a voter base. In reality, however, it's the people that they're attacking, the people that they're calling out who are in fear. These kind of witch hunts are campaigns of terror, really. So they're weaponizing fear, but they're inflicting terror in their wake.”
Abu Sarah says if fearful thinking can override rational thinking, it can transform into violence.
“So typically, if you are attacked by an evil clown, you run in the opposite direction. Someone will only confront the evil clown if they are backed into a corner. So what people will do to rationalize aggression is they'll say, 'I was backed into a corner. This is just self-defense.' In 2017, when James Alex Fields Jr. rammed a protester to death with his car, [in] all of his tapes, he's discussing, ‘I was just acting in self-defense,'" she said. "Now, keep in mind, this is a guy that idolizes Hitler, but he goes on to say, 'I'm just protecting the country from communism. I'm just "defending the white race"' is actually how [he] put it. I mean, people are capable of huge atrocities when you bill it as 'defense.'”
So if someone can trigger your fear response, they can potentially provoke you to violence. And it gets worse when you’re already stressed, and reacting instead of thinking things through, like the stranded sailors of the Essex, suffering for 90 days at sea because they imagined Polynesian cannibals would get them.
One way to fortify your fear response is to think of the information you take in as part of a story. Is it conveying facts and data or is it trying to scare you? Does it pit you against another group?
If so, someone might be trying to hijack your fear response.
Chunnu says taking in more data gives you a better perspective. She said she personally makes a point of reading a variety of media outlets to make sure she is getting a complete picture of the news of the day.
And finally, everyone has fears. Understanding your fear response doesn’t mean you should always ignore it. Your fear of clowns may not be rational, but a healthy fear of heights may help protect you from a fall.
But in moments of fear, defer to your rational brain. And don't let your fear of cannibals leave you stranded at sea.