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Embrace Fear—or at Least a Better Understanding of It

Photo: / Carla Francesca Castagno

You send joy out to the world, so why does the world keep trying to freak you out? Sure, it often seemed like 2017 was feeding you fear like a holiday party buffet, but, you don’t have to put all of that fear on your plate. I hear you: That’s easier said than done. Maybe if you gain a better understanding of what’s making you scared, and what part of your brain is being activated, in 2018, you’ll start to party like it was 1999.

I spent much of this year diving into a research project on the notion of what makes us scared. Despite the nature of the reading, it made me feel very good about our current moment, mainly because it zoomed out, way out, to give me proper perspective on recent events.

Start with the book that everyone should read, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes two critical points. First, violence has been steadily declining for centuries. Local news’ “if it bleeds, it leads” dynamic and the never-ending, no-borders war on terror are poor signals, polluting the historical data, and man is there a lot of data. Put simply, we are better to each other than we’ve ever been, and have every reason to believe our species will continue that trend. Second, much of the violence we have always suffered has a simple explanation: young men. Sure, there’s always a political or cultural veneer, but at root, young men commit more violence than anyone else in the species. I was a young man once and had young men as friends. My anecdotal evidence supports his very, very well-researched thesis.

So, what to do? Well, here we start with the media, and both Barry Glassner’s Culture of Fear and Dan Gardner’s Science of Fear are helpful. Each book is a smart critique of how our natural fear is exploited in the modern world across various areas. But since each author is or was a journalist, they’re really sharp on how to fix what’s wrong with news. In conversations with each of them over the summer, they both think that journalists should be obligated to provide context to crime stories. Just imagine if in the lead live shot on the 10 o’clock news, the police beat reporter said, “While this is a terrible crime, remember that crime has been declining in our city year over year since 1982.” That took about five seconds to say. A little less weather chatter and they can fit that in.

Hey, Fuzz, says my editor, what about a book that was published this year? Sure, how about The Fear Factor by Abigail Marsh? She shows how fear is the key to understanding altruism (well, and also psychopathy, but let’s stick with the altruism part for now, shall we?). In a book featuring great writing and a ton of good and informative anecdotes, there’s this revelation: If you can better understand why your fellow human is scared, you’re more likely to help them. A nice sentiment for the holiday season.


Fuzz Hogan oversees the Editorial, Events and Communications Department. He is a former Executive Producer at CNN.