Mobilizing your fear of an opposing political party’s agenda and policies has become pretty commonplace in political campaigns, today. Now, some new research sheds light on a previously unrecognized link between fear, its source, and just how it shapes one’s political position on polarizing issues. However, I think these findings also point to a much broader but overlooked role that fear plays in many facets of people’s lives. That includes career dilemmas, conflicts around personal values, and problems in intimate relationships. Fears can be subtly conditioned by society’s norms and family pressures. They remain largely unconscious, and can fuel a range of emotional conflicts and dilemmas about life-shaping decisions.
To explain, let’s look at the research. Conducted by a team from Brown University, Penn State, and Virginia Commonwealth University, and published in the American Journal of Political Science, it found that some people appear to have greater inborn tendencies toward social fears. That is, they tend to experience fear at lower levels of threat or danger than others. In effect, they’re wired that way.
The researchers found that such individuals tend to have more negative attitudes toward “outside” groups, such as immigrants and racial-ethnic groups. When the researchers looked at the self-reported political attitudes of the research participants — on a liberal-conservative scale — they found a correlation between negative attitudes toward those groups and conservative political views.
However, as the researchers pointed out, it’s not that conservative people are more fearful. Rather, it’s that fearful people tend to be more conservative. That’s an important difference: One might hold politically conservative positions but not necessarily be fearful of or negative towards “outside” groups. The upshot of the findings is that, as the study’s co-author said, “People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”
But here’s where we need to look more broadly at how fears operate in people’s lives. I think it’s accurate to say that fear underlies pretty much every kind of conflict in life. Many kinds of fear impact not only in political attitudes, but also many other parts of life, where they may remain unconscious but give rise to debilitating emotional conflicts or unwise, unhealthy decisions.
Many fears grow from the clash between your sense of who you are, inside — what your true interests are, what you desire, think, and so on, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the power of your family expectations, or pressures from the external culture. All steadily shape your conscious values, choices, decisions, and — eventually — your definition of who you believe you are.
This consequence of underlying fear is visible in people’s emotional conflicts, especially concerning their careers, relationships and personal values. At the same time, both psychotherapy and empirical research show that people are capable of altering their emotional states, attitudes and thinking in positive, healthier directions. They can heal the emotional damage of their fears and restore an internal sense of wholeness, integration and authenticity. That’s very liberating for one’s entire life.
That is, you can alter the power of fear through life experiences. Fears can lessen or take different form over time, from subsequent life events, experiences, and — especially — self-examination. That’s true not only for those who aren’t wired to a higher level of fear to begin with, but also for those who are.
For example, a man’s socially prominent family demanded adherence to behavior consistent with its view of what was acceptable, given their social standing. Their son followed an educational path and profession that pleased the father and mother, but it was accompanied by high anxiety, as he feared of potential failure at every step. He subsequently became aware that his real interests and talents were in a totally different arena, one that the parents would have strongly disapproved of. His fear of rejection by them, should he have shown himself more openly, had propelled him along in life, but at great emotional expense. Until, that is, he began to awaken to his “right” and need to forge his own, more authentic path in life and confront his terror of parental rejection, still strong, as a full-blown adult in his late 40s.
Fear of going against the grain of social convention led a woman into a marriage that she knew from the beginning lacked the intimacy and sense of being on the same “wavelength” she longed for — and which, in fact, she had experienced with someone previously. But she had ended that relationship. She feared, back then, to affirm her true feelings and desires because a life with him felt “too risky.” That is, looking back, she realized that she had been pulled by the allure of a better material life that was more likely with the man she did marry, given his profession, than with the man she felt was more of a “soul mate.” Interestingly, recent research finds that “wanting” material things is more pleasurable than actually “having” them.
So — married and with children, she had a “good marriage,” as such. But she was depressed and conflicted. Until, that is, she began to confront herself with greater honesty, and decided to figure out what path in life would be the healthiest, now, given her responsibilities and consequences of past decisions. That is, her karma brought her to this moment, but it doesn’t have to determine her future.
Research also supports what we see clinically, through psychotherapy with people like those two — the capacity to grow and “evolve.” For example, returning to the realm of political fears, a new study found that people moved away from polarized positions, even when driven by fear, when they were asked to step back and describe a political difference from a broader, more abstract position. That “distance” generated more open-mindedness and moderation of their views.
More broadly, a large body of research now exists that shows we humans are capable of consciously evolving our emotions, thoughts and attitudes in positive, authentic directions, when we work at it. For example, recent studies that show you can train your brain in directions that lead to greater happiness and positive attitudes in everyday life, even when you might be “wired” toward seeing the glass half-empty. Combining that with awakening — to the origins of your fears, and how they’ve meshed with the ways you’ve been conditioned to think, feel and live — well, that combo is pretty powerful for creating a better future for your life, starting now.
A version of this originally appeared in The Huffington Post