With Your Smartphone, Fear is Never Far Away

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

Ancient Man might have liked a smartphone. Before homo became sapien, our cave-dwelling ancestor would have wanted to know whether a storm was coming or if his friends had spotted a herd of predators nearby. But, lacking such a forecasting tool, he honed (over millennia) a particular part of his brain to cope with sudden fear: the amygdala.

For millions of years, this almond-shaped glob developed inside our ancestors’ brains, preparing them to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Life was mostly slow and local, albeit nasty, brutish and short.

Medieval Man seems so much more modern than that Ancient Man, if you focus only on the clothes, the wheel, and the iron tools. But, if you compare their amygdalae, the thousands of years between them didn’t make much difference. From caves to thatched roofs to gunpowder, that part of us hadn’t really changed much. And it didn’t need to: information was still slow, life was still short and violent (albeit less so). So the amygdala continued to work well at responding to fear.

In fact, it’s so simple it bears a close resemblance to those of other, less-developed animals.

“The [human] amygdala works basically the same as [in] a monkey and a rat,” says Abigail Marsh, author of The Fear Factor and an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

At the relative tail end of those million-plus years in development, right as our history is starting to pick up the pace, this ancient tool is about to be assaulted by…the printing press. Then comes the telegraph and newspapers. And then, in a huge and relatively very recent leap, the radio.

In a blink of an evolutionary eye, radio and television then give way to smartphones—all of the world’s threats in your hand, all the time.

“Before radio, if you got scary news, it would be with your daily newspaper, or you got it over the neighbor’s fence,” says Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology and author of the Culture of Fear. “Now you are suddenly able to get news and all sorts of information much more often.”

In a blink of an evolutionary eye, radio and television then give way to smartphones—all of the world’s threats in your hand, all the time.

The amygdala is trained to weigh threats, but the threat set available to Ancient Man and Medieval Man was limited to threats that could harm him. Asking the same part of the brain to process information about distant threats—and keep them distant—might be too much to ask, especially if the media can make it seem so real.

“The smartphone, especially, more than pretty much any other technology that existed before, is constant,” Glassner says. “For many people, at least, notifications come and updates come pretty much nonstop. It’s a very far cry from picking up the daily paper,” let alone the town square.

“[The] modern world is clearly nothing like the world that developed our fear response,” adds Marsh. “We are no longer getting information that is representative of the actual world because we’re learning about the world from all these unnatural resources. Our brain is coming up with heuristics about how likely events are. It’s not built to take information from social media [and mass media].”

Marsh says the availability heuristic helps us make it all seem scarier, because we’re not equipped to provide ourselves with the appropriate denominators for frightening statistics. A handy example for most of us is plane crashes. You probably know someone who is scared of flying, but unfortunately, throwing statistics at them about how rarely planes crash (especially in U.S. commercial aviation) doesn’t tend to work. By one estimate, more than a thousand people died in the year after the Sept. 11 attacks because they chose to drive versus flying. That’s letting a single horrific act blot out the ability to calculate odds properly.

Same goes for child abductions. The media and the parents in their audience only focus on the single abduction they hear about and fail to put an (admittedly, awful) event in its statistically relevant context. For example, has the number of abductions gone down over time or has the rate gone down as the population has grown? What infinitesimally small proportion are committed by strangers?

Ironically, some of us like to be scared. Horror movies are reliably profitable. But switching from fiction to non-fiction might be a line we’re not built to cross.

“For the news industry, the competition for attention is very, very high,” says Glassner, who’s also a retired editor with ABC News. “The two things that are tried and true for gaining attention are sex and fear. They work very effectively if you know what you’re doing. Sex is a more complicated topic. It works differently in different age groups. Fear is very consistent. We are wired for it and we become more susceptible over time.”

Combine that with the availability heuristic—the very thing that makes it easy to imagine unlikely risks—and you have fear in overdrive. The smartphone for the amygdala is like a drug addict with customized hits arriving in his hand 24/7.

The consequences of this show up throughout our civic life. Fear of crime, even though it’s mostly declining, contorts how cities and states spend money and reinforces social division.  Globalization is a complex dynamic with myriad impacts but using fear of globalization to stoke nativism so that a country leaves a multi-national partnership (i.e. Brexit) is a net negative for that community. Last year’s election in the United States, whichever candidate you preferred, showed how powerful fear could be in rallying citizenry in unhealthy ways. And think of those who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last year chanting “blood and soil.” In a crowded marketplace for ideas, appealing to someone’s fear is exploiting a tool built for a different task, and modern technology is a force multiplier.

In a crowded marketplace for ideas, appealing to someone’s fear is exploiting a tool built for a different task, and modern technology is a force multiplier.

“If I’m trying to gain attention, fear is a very effective tool,” says Glassner. “Media is a carrier. For politics, the competition is for attention and pulling voters or supporters in and keeping them becomes more intense with each of those technologies. The same is true for marketers.”

So, what can be done? We regulate how you can use sex in entertainment and advertising. Why not fear?

Glassner says that’s probably a non-starter. “It’s hard for me to imagine in the U.S. how we would confront fear as we do sex. Restricting speech here has been possible where there has been moral consensus. There is one around sex.”

That leaves us with professional or cultural norms, which are hard to break, especially as culture forms around economic necessity. The notions that crime is either an audience-grabber or a public service are conventional wisdom in newsrooms. But I suspect they both grew out of the economic truth that crime reliably delivers a compelling story at low cost (ergo “if it bleeds, it leads”).  Experts suggest newsrooms would benefit from showing less crime, but acknowledge that it takes hard work and intuition.

Then there’s terrorism, another kind of crime but one that operates at a global scale and brings with it a political component, so journalists use those dynamics to rationalize arguably excessive coverage, as Indira Lakshmanan argued earlier this year. She makes the point that the nature of the coverage—say, if it’s just endless loops of people fleeing the scene of a bombing—might even help terrorism spread by doing the terrorist’s job of scaring the citizenry.

Glassner and Marsh both have advice that the news media could embrace voluntarily and actually further their mission.

“Always make sure people have a denominator. And a chronological metric,” says Marsh. Pointing to Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, Marsh notes that violence has been steadily dropping over time, yet the perception is that it’s up. Simply zooming out to the proper context level, in every piece of reporting, should help allay fear, while still doing good journalism. As Glassner says, “To propagate the notion that crime is rampant when it’s going down is no less irresponsible than propagating false claims about a medicine, which [journalists] would never do.”

What can smartphone makers do? First, a little offense. “Just change the algorithms a little bit,” says Marsh. “Force stories that are good up the rankings.” Then, consider a little defense. Perhaps a filter for fearful content.

That, of course, raises the question of where to draw the line between stories that generate “good” fear (lead paint, climate change) and stories that generate “bad” fear (“plane safety” or “child abductions”). Both Ancient and Modern Man have forever struggled to draw the line between the two, even though their survival often depended on it. Rising to this challenge would be a great victory for technologists.

Of course, you could always just limit your intake. With great power to connect comes great responsibility to occasionally disconnect.