Fear is Getting a Bad Rap These Days

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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?

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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