Politics and the Dark Side of Human Nature

Part 1 — What my grandmother can teach us about fear and politics

The dark side of human nature has and will continue to enthrall, excite, and scare us. Are most of us really capable of extreme levels of twisted violence? Were some people born evil or did circumstances turn them into monsters?

The answer is most likely simultaneously both and neither. The scientific community has, for the most part, moved past the age-old nature vs. nurture debate in favor of a more sophisticated understanding based on constant interactions and feedback loops between biology (all the way down to genetics) and the environment.

As a result of these interactions, each and every one of us has a certain number of ‘bugs’ embedded deep in our psyche.

Cognitive biases are a well-known example of such bugs. How they interfere with individual and collective decision making has been mapped out by decades of scholarship including one of my recent favorite books, Factfulness.

What I will attempt in this series is, in a way, a small-scale version of Factfulness with two differences.

Instead of focusing on cognitive biases, I’ll approach the dark side of human nature from a broader scope including emotion, tribalism, and other psychosocial phenomena. And I’ll do so from the perspective of politics, my area of expertise.

As my first example I picked one of the six basic emotions, the one whose association with politics is most likely as old as politics itself. Fear.

Name the bug

Fear needs no introduction. Not only do all of us have first-hand experience with it, its political implications have been known since antiquity.

How fear can be used to manipulate people for political gain has its own Wikipedia article and has been featured in numerous books including The Culture of Fear and The Monarchy of Fear. The need for security from certain types of threats can also help explain what holds Donald Trump’s supporters together, as John Hibbing demonstrated in The Securitarian Personality.

In the remainder of this article I will contribute to this literature in three ways: by adding my (more like my grandmother’s) example from contemporary Hungary; by explaining why even more modest forms of fear are bad if they impact politics; and by providing some ideas on how to counteract it primarily based on a Buddhist perspective.

Let’s start with my grandmother.

How does it work? How can fear be used for political manipulation?

A few months ago I called my 82-year-old grandmother to check in and provide a little emotional support in these turbulent times. A few minutes in (and completely unprompted), she made the following remark:

“Have you seen these hordes of migrants on TV? I’m so scared of them! We have to keep them away at all cost. They can’t come here, no way, they must not. I couldn’t stand them, I’m telling you, I just couldn’t!”

Now, despite having completed only elementary school (for lack of opportunity more than anything else), my grandmother is not at all stupid. She’s one of the wisest people I know with her own strong sense of ethics.

On the other hand, she has never been outside her native Hungary. In fact, she hasn’t left her village for decades. Needless to say, she has never personally met a real ‘migrant’. Moreover, unlike many other elderly, she professes an ardent hatred for the currently ruling right-wing populist party Fidesz and its leader, Viktor Orban.

Despite all that, Fidesz successfully convinced her that there were literal hordes of scary-looking (and foreign language-speaking) people ready to invade her sleepy and completely unknown village of 3,800 in southern Hungary.

In my professional opinion, this showcases two things. First, the strength of the formula whose most concise and cogent expression comes from none other than Hermann Göring:

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

Second, Fidesz proved their political acumen by taking this formula and, despite its rather obvious absurdity, applying it to their contemporary Hungarian context with great success.

They did so by selling a story. The seed of reality behind their story was the existing issue of migration into Europe, to which they added two components.

First, the idea that many (about a million against the ten millions natives) of these migrants (never called refugees to avoid invoking sympathy) actually intended to settle in Hungary. Second, that this was not a spontaneous process. There were intentional actors behind migration, led by George Soros and his liberal empire, whose goal was to weaken Hungary and destroy its culture.

The fact that both of these claims clearly flew in the face of reality (why would anyone settle in Hungary instead of moving on to richer and more hospitable Western European countries?) did nothing to diminish their fear-invoking power. Nor did the open admission that the whole Soros conspiracy angle was manufactured by two American political consultants.

The formula proved too strong.

Why is it bad?

The cases when exaggerated fear through propaganda spurs an entire population to genocide, war, or other violent manifestations of whipped-up xenophobia like hate crimes, merit no counter-argumentation.

There is, however, a much more subtle example we must consider: the influence of fear on policymaking in non-extreme circumstances. Let me be very clear here. I’m NOT saying there is anything wrong with fear per se. It is with us for a reason and makes perfect evolutionary sense, especially in situations with short-term relevance like when a lion is running charging toward you.

Applying it to politics, however, is problematic for at least two reasons.

1. Fear distorts your perception of reality

Two of my favorite books, Factfulness and Enlightenment Now provide many examples on how negativity bias colors or distorts our perception of reality. Its closely related cousin, fear, is more than capable of doing the same.

A common manifestation of this is overestimation of the threat. According to nationally representative European Social Survey (ESS) data, Hungarians estimated the number of foreign-born individuals living in the country at 11.2%. Perhaps my grandmother was too late to worry and those hordes are already there?

Unsurprisingly, no. The real number was ten times less (1.4%) according to Hungary’s own Central Statistical Office. And these data points refer to 2014, before the anti-migrant propaganda kicked into full gear. By 2019, the real number of foreign-born inhabitants had grown to 2.1%, but I would be shocked if people’s perception hadn’t grown to at least 15% or more.

Furthermore, none of this accounts for the fact that the overwhelming majority of those ‘hordes of migrants’ never intend to settle in the country. Why would they? To be marginalized or straight up hated and make 30% of the money they would in Western or Northern Europe?

2. Fear may alter policy (and politician) selection

Building on an altered sense of reality, fear has strong potential to affect your choices in at least three ways.

First, you will see certain threats as more imminent and requiring more immediate action. So you will be more likely to pay attention to policy areas that are linked to what you fear instead of others that could be less visceral but more important (e.g. parts of the budget or individual liberties).

Second, fear can influence your position in these areas. You may, for example, support policies like increased military spending or a border wall, even if the latter separates two EU member countries or makes no economic sense.

Third, you will support parties or candidates you feel will protect you, even if you otherwise disagree with them on many issues.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with supporting protective policies or certain politicians. But it is a very good idea to pose yourself a certain set of questions. Are these really the best solutions to the issue? Did I carefully weight all the alternatives and make a conscious decision or did I rush to judgment to alleviate my fear? Did I come to the decision to support a policy or party on my own or was I manipulated along the way?

What can we do?

Because fear is such a universal part of the human experience, eliminating it is not possible nor desirable. That said, there are strong reasons to counter fear-based attempts to manipulate you. Here are three steps that can help you in this endeavor.

1. Watch the signs and recognize your fear

Catch your fear early and before it cascades by paying attention to the signs within yourself. These may be currents below your consciousness threshold so it can be rather hard. You will most likely fail to recognize that you’re afraid or anxious before it’s too late on many occasions. But like with everything else, you will get better with training.

Just like with biases, awareness will likely not be enough to counteract the effect of fear. But it’s a good and likely necessary start.

2. Deal with your fear in the moment

Once you’ve acknowledged (not accepted) your fear you can start dealing with it.

What makes strong negative emotions like fear particularly difficult to handle is their interaction with conscious thought. In most cases it’s neigh impossible to ‘think your way out of’ your fear because very often you will just keep finding more and more reasons and justifications for your fear. The emotion supports itself through rationalization.

According to Mathieu, Buddhism teaches three ways of dealing with fear and other negative emotions: antidotes, liberation, and utilization.

The first method relies on the observation that we cannot feel two contradictory emotions at the same time. Thus, when you realize you’re under threat of being overwhelmed by fear, you patiently train yourself to cultivate its opposite, relaxed freedom. In time you will be able to get closer and closer to a conscious and deliberate response. The fear will never stop coming but your ability to work with it instead of falling prey to it will grow.

The second method, liberation, acts at a more basic level.

When we examine the emotions, we find that they are dynamic flows without any inherent substance of their own — in Buddhist terms, “empty” of real existence. Where does fear [anger in the original] come from, how does it evolve, where does it disappear to? A close examination of fear finds nothing substantial, nothing that can explain its tyrannical influence over our lives.

Cultivating this understanding through practice will boost your ability to cope with fear and other conflictive emotions.

The third method is the trickiest and most dangerous. Utilization relies on developing your ability to recognize the parts of your fear that are beneficial and nourish them while discarding the harmful bits.

While, as Mathieu warns,

allowing powerful emotions to express themselves without falling prey to them is playing with fire;

careful practice in the domain can be of immense assistance when dealing with your fear and anxiety.

3. Analyze afterwards

Once you’ve dealt with your fear and enough time has passed, look back with an analytical eye at what had transpired. Was your fear and its degree justified or exaggerated? What triggered it? Did someone try to use it to sell you something or gain your support and thus, power? What worked in your process and what didn’t?

What you do with these ideas is, of course, completely up to you. The path toward understanding and managing your own fear is difficult, perilous, and no one can walk it for you. Only you can, step by painful but rewarding step.

But if a single one of you resists one attempt by a politician to be manipulated into supporting them or a protective policy based on unjustified fear, the effort and thought I put into this article has already been worth it.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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