Fear is Getting a Bad Rap These Days

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Today in MoJo, Chris Mooney passes along some of the latest research about how personality traits affect political affiliations:

In the American Journal of Political Science, a team of researchers including Peter Hatemi of Penn State and Rose McDermott of Brown University studied the relationship between our deep-seated tendencies to experience fear—tendencies which vary from person to person, partly for reasons that seem rooted in our genes–and our political beliefs. What they found is that people who have more fearful disposition also tend to be more politically conservative, and less tolerant of immigrants and people of races different from their own. As McDermott carefully emphasizes, that does not mean that every conservative has a high fear disposition. “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative,” as she puts it.

Just for the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate that this is true. We still have a wee bit of a messaging problem here: No conservative will ever, ever, ever accept any of this research as long as it insists that conservatives are just a bunch of wailing fraidy cats. And I don’t blame them.

There has got to a more neutral, less pejorative way of describing this. I’m not sure what it is, though, because it needs to be technically accurate too. I could throw out a bunch of suggestions, but I wouldn’t have a good sense if they really fit the evidence well.

Still, this is a widespread trait and it’s one that’s obviously useful to society. Being cautious is often appropriate. In-group loyalty—the root cause of xenophobia—is valuable in any group based on social ties. Wariness of others can save your life or keep you from being cheated. Skepticism toward change is often called for. Etc.

I don’t know if any of these words are appropriate substitutes for “fear.” But one way or another, the brain scientists and social scientists who study this stuff need to figure something out. Right now, this research too often boils down to fear bad, openness good, and that’s not only wrong and simplistic, it’s wildly counterproductive. If liberals were routinely described as, say, gullible and naive, we wouldn’t like it much either.

So that’s my question of the day. What should we say instead?

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.