Fear learned early can affect us life-long.
In a working paper on the topic, Harvard child psychologists explain that intense, chronic fear and anxiety hampers children’s ability to learn, and undermines their ability to correctly perceive threats. Without intervention, children raised in chronically fearful environments learn to interpret ambiguous situations in a negative way, build stress as they preemptively work to protect themselves, and adopt an “aggressive” stance toward the world.
Furthermore, “simply removing a child from a dangerous situation will not by itself undo the serious consequences or reverse the negative impacts of early fear learning.” We have to create new emotional and neurological architecture to replace the old while we also work to change the outer environments that made old fears seem reasonable.
I read the Harvard paper and couldn’t help but think about the fear-based rhetoric that’s become a normal part of political, religious, and charitable communication. Lobbyists argue for one candidate by invoking the disasters they believe a different candidate is responsible for. Religious leaders warn adherents against an interpretation by threatening community censure at best and post-mortem punishment at worst. And even nonprofits that otherwise focus on reducing harm and making society more just sometimes send out letters that are full of suspicion and full of fear.
This doesn’t work well for any of us.
Take a week or two just to notice the tenor of the communications that you receive from organizations or send to your own audiences. Where does the fallacy of argumentum in terrorem, the appeal to fear, seem to crop up most? What can you do to squeeze it out of your toolbox, and anywhere it doesn’t produce good results? And how do you find fear affecting you and the small and large life choices you make?