Fear Leads to the Dark Side

Published by timdean on

Spake Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

And there you have, in a nutshell, one of Australian opposition-leader, Tony Abbot’s, key strategies in this federal election campaign. In fact, Yoda might well have added “Suffering leads to voting conservative.”

Political insight is strong with this one.

Fear – or more precisely, perception of threat – starts people on a slippery slope towards voting conservative. This is well known from political and moral psychology, where numerous studies have shown that individuals who perceive the world as being a dangerous place – whether it actually is or not – tend to vote conservative.

As they say, “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” (Although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Yoda. He would have said “a liberal mugged, a conservative is.”)

The Great Lurch to the Right that reinforced the Presidency of George W. Bush in the United States following the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks are a classic example of a people perceiving threat – arguably a real one at the time – and responding by shifting their votes into the hands of the hawks.

Likewise, Abbot’s rhetoric about ‘border protection’ and an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers is all geared – intentionally or not – to push that ‘dangerous world’ button. It suggests that we’re ‘under siege’ and that if we don’t ‘stop the boats’ we’ll be inundated by strange outsiders – people who can’t be trusted, people who should be feared.

There actually is a logic to the idea that conservative ideology is better equipped to handle a dangerous and threatening world. Conservative ideology is underpinned by the idea that the world is a dangerous place – and that outsiders are often hostile – and, a such, it is naturally inclined towards security, military spending, in-group cohesion (i.e. monoculturalism), harsh law enforcement, and is less prone to multilateral engagements that might expose one’s nation to betrayal or free-riders (consider the Liberal reluctance to engage in any international treaty to respond to climate change on the grounds that we might end up conforming to the terms, but the others might shirk their responsibilities).

Liberalism (‘progressivism’ in the Australian context, to reduce confusion) makes a more benign assumption about the world we live in and is optimistic about human nature, assuming that, given the opportunity, people will generally get along with each other in harmony. As such, progressives are less security-focused (i.e. ‘doves’), encourage tolerance and diversity (i.e. multiculturalism), are more inclined to favour harm minimisation and rehabilitation to being ‘tough’ on crime, and embrace multilateral relations with outside groups and nations.

Which broad approach is better depends to a large degree on the environment we live in. If we’re a small nation surrounded by hostile outsiders, a tough, ‘conservative’ approach might better ensure stability and protect us from invasion – military or otherwise. However, if the neighbours aren’t actually hostile, then the suspicious, insular, conservative approach can lose out on potentially fruitful cooperative engagements with neighbours – it can even makes us less inclined to engage with strangers within our own nation.

Progressive ideology tends to do better in a peaceful world because it encourages more interaction and cooperation between, and within, nations. It’s also more inclined to engage in peaceful diplomacy, and is thus more likely to be trusted by other nations. However, this exposes a progressive nation to a greater possibility of being invaded or betrayed by others, such as multilateral partners who refuse to pull their weight in an international treaty.

Furthermore, it appears that some of this dichotomy is hardwired in our psychology – a result of millennia of evolution as social (and political) creatures. We respond in fairly predictable ways to the environment around us – or, at least, the environment as it appears. If the world looks like it’s a dangerous place, it triggers our psychological defence mechanisms, and that tilts us towards conservatism.

The problem is when the perception of the world doesn’t match the real world. And that’s where political rhetoric and the targeted use of language – or ‘framing’ – comes in. Every time Abbott reinforces the impression that the world is a hostile and threatening place, it tilts more people over to the conservative mindset. And, unfortunately, emotion often trumps reason when it comes to making voting decisions.

If we want to vote not only honestly, but also vote in response to the actual challenges we face in the world around us, we owe it to ourselves not to fall for such rhetorical tricks, whether they’re played by either side of politics (Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s, appeal to “moving forward” is a similarly progressive button pushing exercise).

We can never expect to eliminate our psychological biases or emotional tilts. But we can at least acknowledge their presence and their influence on our decisions. And, more importantly, we can refuse to allow politicians (and pundits) to push our buttons and sway our judgements for their own political expedience.

I’m sure Yoda would agree. Remember he said: “do not underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father’s fate, you will.” Oops. Wrong quote. “Hmm. Control, control. You must learn control.” Yeah, that one makes sense.


James Gray · 29th July 2010 at 10:36 am

You might want to see Chomsky’s The Manipulation of Fear: http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20050716.htm

“The resort to fear by systems of power to discipline the domestic population has left a long and terrible trail of bloodshed and suffering which we ignore at our peril. Recent history provides many shocking illustrations.”

Vincent · 30th July 2010 at 6:28 pm

I hesitate to comment here because Conservative means different things in different political arenas. My rule of thumb is that it’s always looking back to an earlier age when things were better. It always echoes the sentiment of the Duke of Wellington, after he’s turned to politics, that “the country’s gone to the dogs”. So in America, conservatism will inevitably invoke a pioneer spirit of the Wild West, and before that, the fight for Independence from the evil controlling British.

Progressive looks forward to a constructed future. Constructed because it cannot be left to its own devices, but must be controlled in accordance with some utopian ideal.

I don’t know the political scene in Australia enough to comment on your analysis, but if you are saying that conservatism is what people turn to as a remedy against fear, I’d say there are many other reasons for voting conservative. In my case, here in England, the only fear involved is of the mess that the Labour Party can inflict on my beloved country. There. I have nailed my colours to the mast and exposed my “psychological biases or emotional tilts”.—Which, when it comes to the ballot-box, I think you will find very much stronger than any induced fear and button-pressing that politicians are cunning enough to attempt.

Sabio Lantz · 2nd August 2010 at 12:01 pm

I wonder what are the down sides of erring on the side of protective conservatism when the cost could be huge if the liberals are wrong. Liberals too can paint an enticing optimism which falsely lulls. It seems then that all this is a complex cost-benefit analysis with far more variables than any partisan is will to admit.

Tim Dean · 2nd August 2010 at 7:05 pm

Hi Sabio.

Sometimes – particularly when information is poor – erring on the side of caution is the better strategy.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that we’re more inclined to make type I errors (false positives) rather than type II errors (false negatives), because the cost of seeing and reacting to avoid a threat when it’s not there are lower (cost might be missing out on some food) than not seeing and reacting to avoid a threat that really is there (cost might be death).

However, in an environment where there really aren’t very many threats, those who are less inclined to make type I errors (i.e. liberals, in this context) will likely outperform those who make more type I errors (i.e. conservatives). It all depends on the environment.

Also, I’d suggest that the world is actually a safer place today than it was when we evolved our asymmetric error heuristics. So there are likely to be an excess of ‘conservatives’ that will miss out on potentially lucrative cooperative ventures because they perceive a greater level of threat than actually exists. As such, we can probably afford to be more liberal than we’re probably being right now.

One example might be in law enforcement: the US has some of the most incarceration-happy laws and courts in the world, yet crime – particularly violent crime – is often higher than other developed nations with more liberal laws. (Although the United States’ absurd gun culture might skew these statistics somewhat – but even the gun culture could be the runaway result of an excess of conservative thinking.)

tomess · 5th August 2010 at 9:00 am

Dear Tim

Hi. Great points about Mr Abbott promoting fear for political ends (I once heard that having a war raises the conservative vote by about 5%). But aren’t conservationists ‘conservative’? (and shouldn’t we be conservationists?)


Tim Dean · 5th August 2010 at 10:41 am

Conservationists do believe in ‘conserving’ something against change, i.e. the environment. But conservatives hold a broader attitude against change, particularly when it comes to social structures. The conservative resistance to change stems from a greater desire for stability and a tolerance for inequality, and a suspicion about radicalism.

Conservatives also often see nature as being relatively hostile and to be conquered and used for human benefit, and that puts them in opposition to conservationists, particularly when the latter place environmental concerns before human concerns (jobs, houses, electricity etc). Hence Bush snr’s stab at Gore that we’ll be “up to our necks in owls” if Gore gets his way.

So there are similarities, but even greater differences.

Simple Logic · 10th August 2010 at 5:11 pm

Dear PhD student – Tim Dean,
“Bio Science journalist, editor of Australian Life Scientist, gaming blogger, philosophy PhD student…..” Hmmmmm! How come I am not surprised by this brief Bio?

Funny thing about your analysis of the current political circus here in Australia – I have been following it closely and have not noticed one little bit of “scare mongering”! You are obviously very young with limited life experience. I suggest you leave your ivory tower as soon as possible and get out into the real world.

Your comment – “Abbot’s rhetoric about ‘border protection’ and an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers is all geared – intentionally or not – to push that ‘dangerous world’ button. It suggests that we’re ‘under siege’ and that if we don’t ‘stop the boats’ we’ll be inundated by strange outsiders – people who can’t be trusted, people who should be feared.” speaks much more about you than it does about Mr Abbot. I have friends who live in Arizona and the illegal immigration there is a real problem – as you might be aware. You do not have to be ‘ANTI-MEXICAN’ to understand that if a nation cannot or will not defend its borders then it is no longer a nation. This ‘simple’ logic applies to Australia!

Tim Dean · 11th August 2010 at 6:51 pm

Hi Simple Logic. First of all, ad hominem attacks don’t get much truck here. And your presumption about my age or inexperience just makes you look silly. I’m more than happy to engage in all views, even opposing ones, if they’re presented respectfully and rationally.

As for your point about border protection, I think that says more about you than it says about me. The way you perceive Abbot’s rhetoric flavours the conclusions you draw from it, and your perspective is primed by your values. The very fact that you respond so differently to the same rhetoric suggests that my theory is correct.

A final point, the illegal immigration issues faced by Arizona are very different to those faced by Australia. Here an overwhelming majority of so-called ‘boat people’ are legitimate asylum seekers, not ‘queue jumpers’ looking to circumvent conventional means of immigration.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *