Philosophy? Or Fear?

What does fear have to do with political philosophy?

According to a fascinating article in Business Insider, a lot.

Academicians who study such things tell us that, in the wake of 9/11, many people who were politically liberal became less so–scientists documented a “very strong conservative shift” in the US after the attacks, with more liberals supporting George W. Bush and favoring increased military spending.

The hypothesis social scientists developed about this effect is perhaps best summed up in a 2003 review of research on the subject: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals,” it said.

Researchers have also found that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalae. This is an area of the brain that has been associated with the expression and processing of fear. A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.

These results have been linked to evolution’s “fundamental drive for personal safety.” Other political consequences of our evolutionary past have been subjected to experimentation as well. For example, it seems that

washing hands with soap and water can make people less hostile to individuals who are different than they are. Bargh says that’s because to some extent, our modern prejudices are shaped by the way we’ve evolved to avoid unknown, foreign threats like disease.

These studies are interesting, and they have obvious relevance to the partisanship of our current era. That said, they raise thorny questions that have been the subject of philosophical dispute for eons: how much of human behavior is the result of conscious thought? Logical argumentation? Is there such a thing as free will, or are we human animals acting out a lifespan pre-programmed in our genes and modified–if at all–by our very gradual evolution?

Is my opposition to the GOP tax bill really grounded in my analysis of its provisions and my conclusion that it is morally and economically indefensible? Or did I just inherit less gray matter in my amygdala?

Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?

It’s a conundrum…


  1. In answer to your questions here about whether it is genetics or intelligence I say “both”. And while at it, I might add that those born with larger amounts of grey matter in their amygdala are thus hindered in their ability to learn and think logically caught, up as they are in their own survival.

    I wonder how much grey matter in their amygdala astronauts have. Think we could get NASA to release their brain scans?

  2. An interesting (deliberate?) blog issue today; the day after Thanksgiving and yesterday’s subject, “If It’s Mental Illness”. A conundrum for sure, on many different levels. Why did the “very strong conservative shift” not become public and reach the dangerous active state we live with today , after the Oklahoma City bombing. We lost 168 Americans, many of them small children and babies, and a government building to an American grown terrorist and a truckload of fertilizer. The majority of terrorist killings here have been carried out by our own American home grown terrorists.

    In addition to all else that is on my mind these days regarding the survival of myself, my family, my friends and my country; I am questioning the functioning of my “amygdale”. Is it greater or lesser due to my childhood of watching horror movies and over 40 years of reading Stephen King novels? I believe I have the ability to first attempt to separate real from imagined fear and the levels of fear if they be real. I feel much more fear turning on my TV each day to learn what Trump and his administration have done to destroy our democracy and our freedom, I am aware of my surroundings but have no fear of being physically attacked, permanently injured and robbed again after having it happen on my own driveway at 11:00 one April morning in 2014.

    I deeply fear what is today considered to be “conservatism”; “If It’s Mental”, is there a cure…for my fear and “conservatism”? The “fundamental drive for personal safety” used to be referred to as the “fight or flight” decision. I believe most of us who read and comment on this daily blog are those who have chosen to “fight”; Trump, his administration and the majority of Congress and their followers have taken “flight” into a world of false “conservatism” which has only fake protection for all of us. This was blatantly apparent in Trump’s ridiculous “Thanksgiving message to the troops” yesterday…between rounds of golf.

  3. So, there’s a scientific reason I view many of my high school classmates as “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals”?

    They’ve not elevated their consciousness in decades.

    As for our politicians in Washington and Indianapolis, it’s a Kakistocracy. The sexual harassment scandals are just the low hanging fruit. There will be plenty more coming…

  4. After 9-11, do I really want to spend a whole lot of time on the 42nd floor? Is that where I aspire to have an office? There is only one way down … the same way you came up. So, there is a part of me that went conservative. For me, it is not a simple binary argument to choose between fear and philosophy. There is a lot of gray in between called healthy skepticism. Being liberal with healthy skepticism does not make you a GOP convert. I am a progressive conservative who more often than not votes Democrat. Why? The Republican agenda portrays an incredible narrow social bandwidth maligned with world reality. That possibility of extreme social philosophy to dominate public policy is enough to engender rational fear for the safety and well being of the next generation.

  5. There is nothing “conservative” about the GOP tax bill. It’s actually very radical, and it’s based on a flimsy framework of economic thought that has been ridiculed by the profession for decades. It is also well understood, or should be, that it’s just a prelude to a more substantive tax bill to be passed in 2018, after the election. That will be the one to help balance the budget on the backs of the underprivileged by hacking away at the social safety net and the means of funding and operating them. It will also attempt to contract the size and scope of federal government in all areas but one – the military.

    Talk about a brave new scary world. Hope everyone who voted these people in office are happy once they see the outcome of what they asked for.

  6. Conservative propaganda has been creating fear in the minds of their followers and it has been quite successful. By causing them to fear the “terrible changes” that the left “might” impose on them and society, they have gained political advantages at both the state and federal levels.

    With this in mind, how do we go about convincing them that they have been fed lies that have never materialized and never will? How do we convince the people with more grey matter in their right amygdalae that they should be in fear of the very people they have been listening to and believing?

    I have thought for quite awhile that we need to use the tactics of the alt-right to display the damage already done and yet to be done by conservative politicians. It seems that conservative leaning people tend to only listen to those who put fear into their minds.

    Democrats do not do a good job of pointing out the damages that will be done to constituents by their conservative politicians. If they only respond to fear, then we need to put fear into their minds just like the right does.

  7. Consider this paragraph from the article:

    A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.

    But it does not say if they did another MRI with these people to see if the size of the grey matter decreased. That would not be likely, because that would involve Lamarckian changes, and ones that occurred on a very short time span. Two strikes against it.

  8. “Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?”

    Yes to both.

  9. In Rebecca Costa’s excellent book, “The Watchman’s Rattle…”, she poses the basic thesis that we have evolved much faster socially than we have biologically. Therein lies the basis for our confusion about how to behave and live in stressful times, or how to manage nearly 8 billion individuals. We are now the most populous mammal on Earth.

    Consider that our biological brain lived in a world where there were only a few hundred (at most) existed in a given tribe. Also, before the discovery of antibiotics, the planet’s human population was less than two billion. So, in the space of a century, we’ve quadrupled our numbers. Our primitive fears of being eaten by a leopard ARE part of our DNA, as it is in all animals: the agonistic behaviors required to survive and perpetuate the species. Basic stuff.

    We no longer fear being eaten by a leopard, but rather being killed by our fellow man. We are the only mammal that kills its own species for the sake of killing. We conduct massive fratricide against our opposing tribes (wars) as a matter of course for hoarding resources for our tribe’s survival. THAT is the 200,000 year old drive that still lives within us. Recorded human history ALWAYS includes great wars with an evolution of weapon technology to kill as many of the opposition as possible and steal their resources. So, one might ask, “What about pre-recorded history?” The answer is obvious. And, we are still at it, hammer and tong, today with over 30 shooting wars going on around the planet. These wars use all sorts of excuses, but most of them center around tribal imperatives; religion being just another tribal “glue”. Fighting to form one’s own country within a country is tribalism writ perfectly.

    Our politics still reflect those basic survival behaviors and the tribalism humans developed to pose a greater front to adversaries not unlike those of herding animals that survive predation by clinging together in large groups. So, as Ms. Costa suggests, our conundrum as a species is to try to manage our “super tribes” (Thank you, Desmond Morris) to the extent that we don’t execute the use of our ultimate weapons to destroy ourselves altogether.

    We are the only species that has engineered its own means of extinction; a delicious irony if it weren’t so incredibly tragic.

  10. Fear? Nah! FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and while that falls far short of a Lakoffian look at discrete brain matter, it adds the dimension of the human spirit to the evolutionary happenstance. Voting for Bush out of fear was akin to running and hiding under mother’s skirts when there is a knock on the door, whether condo or cave, and I think the conclusions reached by the researchers are accurate.

    FDR did not need to instill fear among the populace; thanks to a hair-raising depression it had been instilled on its own. He captured the mood of the country (aka the country ran to his welcoming arms) and instead of lying down and playing dead in some laissez faire morass he did something; he gave us any number of agencies and acronyms, and when knocked down by the Supreme Court, got up the next day and gave us some more agencies. He was a will-do as well as a can-do president with (per the historian Kearns) a liberal prodding wife to keep him on track. Bush’s war for oil did nothing to allay our fears; FDR’s war for the people and his New Deal did much to allay the fears of people. I know. I was there (speaking of evolutionary time).

  11. Great defining of the issues: generalized anxiety, unconscious reaction to uncertainty, the concept of our own demise, fear of the unknown. Are there some solutions we have available to help counter, which might be tried?

    Perhaps the book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project, might provide more information on decision making.

    There is also the concept of expansion of our levels of consciousness. Lots of social science, and neuroscience research showing that elements of mindfulness and meditation help to lessen anxiety and normalize fears. Such practices have been shown to change the brain! There is a degree of plasticity within the physical structure of our brain, as with other parts of our body.

    Also a good therapeutic group or personal therapist might help guide persons to a more sane and calm engagement in an uncertain world.

  12. Skip the technical stuff. After 9-11 wingnuts went right after Dems and started threatening them at the polls with calls of being anti-American or asking why Dems hated America, if they didn’t vote for the Patriot Act. It was a tactic that worked time and again when wingnuts wanted to jack up defense spending and cut social programs for the poor to pay for them.

  13. I see that there’s a movie coming out about Churchill as WWII was in it’s earlier days when it was primarily Germany vs Britain. There was no doubt great reason for Brits to be afraid. Churchill preached replacing that fear with courage and resolve and as a powerful orator sold faith in a positive outcome rather than defeat when the populous vision of that possibility was weakest.

    It can be argued in retrospect that his influence at that critical time determined the world we have always assumed to be our due rather than a gift of grit and leadership.

    When Cheney sold America on launching the Holy Wars to protect our oil interests he sold it as a symmetrical war. We were strong, they were weak, we had nothing to fear except losing some kids. He should have known that when the strong attack the weak the weak don’t get strong they get creative and launch an asymmetric response. Terrorism.

    So here we are with strong media and weak leaders who sell fear instead of courage and grit. Who create a vision of weakness to sell themselves as saviors. After all such media makes more money regardless of the impact on others.

    Our modern threats are different than Brits faced in those years but no less is at risk. We need Churchill, we got sold Hitler.

  14. Mike from Iowa,

    Interesting that you should point the post-9/11 hysteria fostered by the Bush-ites and Cheney. During the Nuremberg trials, Goering himself was quoted as explaining the operating theory of the Nazis.

    It went something like this: Of course the people don’t want war, but if you keep telling them they are being attacked, and that to defy the government’s efforts to “save” them is considered treason, they’ll follow along.” I don’t think that is the word-for-word quote, but you get the idea.

    Fear has always been the driving force behind despotism and irrational actions in ancient as well as modern man.

  15. Comparing Trump to Hitler is stating Franken is just as bad as Weinstein.

    Speaking of fear…. OMG,Russia!

    I think the Progressives themselves (both voters and congresscritters) post 2006 got what they deserved in both the D party and Obama by not learning, not responding to their own failings in their own caucus. Time and time again we see the design and intent of the Party itself is to pull the rug from under the peoples feet. Whether Prog, Social Dem or any other slight differential from war, neoliberalism, top-down, money rules. The absence of true democratic process will always fail the people in the type of organization the D party is. Even Sanders who wanted to change emphasis on some issues doesn’t get the structure is itself systemically flawed. Following the rules and the platform process all while being constantly reminded there is nothing binding representatives to said rules or platform once established says so much. And the manipulation of the voting process within the Party on every level to boot. It all says so much.

    Stand for nothing in earnest, fall for anything. But hey, keep organizing, false negotiating, contributing, voting the same way expecting different results. Maybe one day they will let you have a conversation or a seat at a table… but the rug will always be pulled from under your feet if you disagree with the owners.

  16. I know absolutely nothing about the size of the right amygdalae in anyone’s brain or its potential to measure levels of fear; however, I can cite the bases of both the Democrat and the Republican parties as exhibiting heightened fear levels as per their unabashed greed and total ignorance as played out on this day, Black Friday.

    Savor the irony of those Black Friday shoppers who would spend $200 to purchase a tent so they can have a sheltered wait outside a Best Buy store to save $50 on a discontinued television model. Savor the irony of those greedy Black Friday shoppers who would physically fight another shopper for a cheap plastic child’s toy. These folks represent the bases of both our political parties, the fearful, greedy and ignorant bases who lack any idea of civil behaviors. These people scare me because these are the people who elect our leaders.

    At the crack of dawn today, a Black Friday shopper was shot in a Missouri mall; an Alabama mall was closed because of a violent Black Friday brawl before the sun even came up. Take a look at the greedy, fearful bases of both our political parties…

  17. William,

    Actually, the parallels between the beginnings of the Third Reich and what is happening in this administration are eerily alike. The characters in Hitler’s Reich also have parallels to Trump’s. Trump’s rhetoric is also parallel to Hitler’s though, Hitler was more articulate.

    Both are madmen with serious mental problems that caused them to lead their nations into very bad places. Trump is only getting started, but his disease is backed up by nuclear weapons and the most powerful conventional military force in world history.

    So, the Franken v. Weinstein equivalency doesn’t play here.

  18. No. This TrumpDerangement Syndrome is because of the election. Democrats have become just as batshit crazy as the right.

    If anyone as president exhibited what could be described as despotic behavior,it was GWB. Of course,where was the resistance during his presidency?

    Trump isn’t Idi Amin. He isn’t Pinochet. He is not Hitler. To compare him to such despots is idiotic and mendacious.

  19. Take all that you have said, Sheila, `about copious amounts of gray matter in the amigdula as true, but add one more factor. Most conservatives have been induced, harassed or sold by their lifestyle, churches, workplaces, clubs, or political parties into buying or accepting as true what they think of as a or THE critical (sine qua non) component of the Far Right agenda. That is why amygdula thinkers are so adamant.

  20. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    An appeal to intelligence and reason. How refreshing to hear it now.

    I went through the gamut of political preferences in my life. I became (in my opinion) a good human being, a more christlike human being, and a liberal progressive, when I finally was able to face my fears. These racist nationalist people do not understand how ridiculous they are. All they can see is what their fear guides them to see.

  21. William,

    Yes, William, there IS a Trump Derangement Syndrome, but unlike the Obama Derangement Syndrome, TDS is an intrinsic creation, whereas ODS was extrinsic. Big difference.

    No, William, Democrats have NOT become “batshit crazy”. And GWB wasn’t a pussy-grabbing, lying, racist with narcissistic over and undertones. Big difference. Reasonable, thinking people simply cannot wallow in false equivalencies.

    My comments on equivalencies between Trump rhetoric and dictators past is DOCUMENTED. So, when you go around shooting off your mouth about idiotic commentary, be sure you know what the hell you’re talking about.

    Good to see that you learned to spell “mendacious”. Now, look up the meaning.

  22. Vernon,you’re wrong. And, you’re willfully lying. GWB was a lying (WMD) ,narcissistic and racist man. He was also a coward. As far as pussy-grabbing,what of Bill Clinton?

    Unfortunately,we must purge the Democratic Party of willfully ignorant blind loyalists to the upper echelons of the party such as yourself, before a genuine progressive agenda can materialize.

  23. Conservatives, often consciously, adopt conservatism out of a deep-rooted fear of change. Wanting to stop the world so they don’t have to struggle to adapt to change, they grab on to a philosophy that reassures them that they have nothing to fear because authoritarians will halt change in its ugly tracks. This never works out, of course, but conservative leaders can blame that on liberals, thereby further cementing their mindless followers’ loyalty. Trump promises to take us back to those halcyon days of yore, just as soon as he can determine when “yore” was. Whenever it was, all conservatives know that things were better then. That’s why many conservatives see the rules handed down from prehistoric times – when wheelbarrows passed for leading-edge technology – as the finest thinking ever done.

  24. Where is FDR when we need him? I’m scared shtless for our beloved country hardly recognizable these days. We are being preyed upon. Is that why small arms sales are “up”?

  25. OMG…..

    FDR? The “New” Democrats are/have been doing everything to kill the party of FDR. That is why I’ve become so frustrated with many among this forum–and of the party as well.

    The party has become the party of the upper 10%

  26. What do you mean, William? Is it that you, too, mourn the loss of FDR in the DNP? Do you support the Social Safety Net, Works Progress, Universal Health Care, Minimum Wage, etc.?
    Resist your frustrations. What would you support?

  27. So far, I’ve only seen washing hands and meditating mentioned as possible solutions to/mitigation of fear dominating decision-making. Is there anything else that can be done? Especially in our schools?

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