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FEAR: MONEY, STAFFIES AND THE APOCALYPSE

Fear. The dreaded death call saying a loved one is in hospital. You are fired. Panic-buying, petrol stations empty, China has declared war against Taiwan and suicide is the only way to escape eternal doom. Fear is a basic emotion that we share with animals. It evolved to help our ancestors flee from predators, stop dead at the edge of a precipice and plan a drastic course of action as the winter's food supply ends. The reason why fear is such a powerful emotion is its ability to grip us, shoving other emotions like joy, sadness, trust and disgust out of the window. Put another way, fear scrunches up our subconscious to-do list and rewrites it with just one entry in large sprawling capitals: ACT or, sometimes, DON'T ACT. While sadness, for example, is something to be dwelt on, delved into and dealt with later, fear demands attention now. Like other emotions, fear provides an automatic cue that influences our responses to certain stimuli. Due to its evolutionary roots, psychologists suggest it can have a particularly strong influence over the human mind: 'Fear, in particular, evolved to protect humans against threats to survival, and its evolutionary-based effects continue to influence modern humans despite the changed nature of the threats we face' [1]. Although clearly advantageous in the past, can fear help us in the urban jungle, where snakes, murderous tribes and other prehistoric threats have vanished? The physical and social environments in which we live have moved on a great deal, but our brains are pretty much the same as they were 10,000 years ago. It is this mismatch, between our stone-aged brain and the technologically advanced civilization in which we live, that I'll tackle in this article. Most of the dangers that forged our forefathers' sense of fear are long dead and gone. The risky savannah became a paved settlement, the dangerous cave became a house and most modern lives now operate in blissful separation from the perils of the prehistoric world. But we still have the fear instinct, which, starved of real threats such as sabre-toothed tigers, will feed on perceived perils that may be pure figments of the imagination. In my modern-day jungle, I see money (lack of) replacing snakes, beefed-up dogs known as Staffies replacing tigers and some abstract dread of the Apocalypse replacing the urgency to prepare for tribal warfare or a hard winter. It's hard to tell how much others share such deep-seated fears - it's not the kind of thing that makes polite conversation - but some have stated that fear is the major driving force in society [2] and in terms of fiction, scary real-life events drive some of the most gripping stories going [3]. Horror films deal with obvious sources of dread, like death, torture and dictatorship, but what about fear in the daily grind of everyday life? In rich countries today, everyday fears are more likely to spring from workplace worries, social insecurities or anxiety about the future. Such sources of fear - banal, day-to-day and sometimes imagined - are a far cry from the emotion that saved the hunter-gatherer from harm. But these things, represented by money, Staffies and the Apocalypse, dominate in Sheffield and other places where violent crime is rare, natural disasters are distant and torture is banned. This idea cannot be proven, but there is good evidence to suggest these everyday fears have a big impact on our lives. First, money. Traditional or 'neoclassical' economics categorises our lives into 'producer' and 'consumer' modes, something hammered into us by the mass media from an early age. You go to work in producer mode, hunt in the capitalist Savannah for a decent hide of dinero and go home to your friends and family as a successful consumer - the comfy sofa, the varied and exciting products available and the weekly roller-coaster of the Friday and Saturday binge. This is a vision I see presented and adopted all around me, defining many people's lives, and it's scary. It's a vision in which you must earn enough within the system to be able to enjoy the fruits of 'success' it has to offer. So you hunt harder in producer mode and consume better in consumer mode. What's the latest iPhone? Which bars to go to? What clothes to wear? The implication of this mindset is that you must sacrifice the producer side of your life - holding down a shite job, sucking up to colleagues or backstabbing rivals - to maximise your life as a consumer. This vision is presented to us every day in adverts but is almost completely wrong. As pointed out in the classic Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher [4], the producer-consumer model cannot account for people who enjoy their job, cook for a hobby or volunteer. His point is that we can be producers and consumers at the same time (and I don't mean browsing Facebook at work), having a wicked time while producing something useful in the process. Taken further, this idea can become Epicurean, whereby happiness is achieved by wanting less, not getting more. You could end up working fewer hours, wasting less time desiring material goods and, if Epicurus was right, also be happier. These alternatives to the producer/consumer world view mean you can avoid the doom of monetary warfare and the fear of destitution. Second, fear of people also seems to be blown out of all proportion by the mainstream media. Paedophiles, for example, are frequently used to justify a range of mollycoddling rules, imposed by state and parents alike, banning children from going out alone, swimming or even cycling to school. These same actions that reduce (by a tiny amount) the probability of a child being molested will increase (by a large amount) the chances of them dying from obesity, square eyes or soul-destroying boredom. In this example of the damage that our capacity for fear can reap, fear is not caused by another problem - fear (of the wrong thing) is the problem itself. Third and worst, according to a major review of workplace silence [1], is the fear of those who are higher up in the human pecking order. Again, this has roots in our evolutionary past: 'For the low status member, a confrontation with a high status member could end in death or loss of reproductive fitness.' Translated into today's workplace hierarchies, the evidence suggests that people are 'biologically prepared to fear challenging authority', preferring to remain silent and get on with the job. If people are unaware of how their feelings are influenced by such powerful evolutionary drivers, how can they possibly deal with them effectively? By being aware of the baggage of the human mind, people will surely be able to understand themselves better and avoid being a slave to animal instincts. I'm not trying to say that fear is bad. It's obviously very good in some situations, like when crossing a busy road or checking that a friend is okay. My point is that our evolutionary past makes us Homo sapiens prone to fear things in our everyday lives that do not pose a threat in reality. People who understand this may be better equipped to deal with oppressive economic, media-manufactured fears. Take some time to think about fear's influence on your life and spread the word. [1] Kish-Gephart, J. J., et al. Silenced by fear: The nature, sources, and consequences of fear at work. Research in Organizational Behavior 29 (2009): 163-193. [2] Glassner, B., 2010. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More, Basic Books. [3] Most notably - McCarthy, C., 2010. The Road, Pan Macmillan. [4] Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, Harper & Row, 1975. )

Next article in issue 33

Yann Tiersen: A Trip Down Dust Lane

Yann Tiersen is not the most French name in the world, but since the release of Amélie in 2001 it has been a household name across the Chan…

Yann Tiersen is not the most French name in the world, but since the release of Amélie in 2001 it has been a household name across the Chan

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