The Fear Virus


We’re in the midst of a global, digital pandemic. Time to stop it in its tracks.

A year ago something terrible happened in London’s Oxford Circus.

It was just before peak hour on Friday 24th November 2017, and hundreds of thousands of people were in the city centre to take advantage of the Black Friday sales. The problem started underground, and news passed quickly through the masses, sweeping up through the subway tunnels and into the streets. Alarm turned into panic, and panic became fear and eventually outright terror, crackling like wildfire through the crowded streets.

Within minutes thousands of shoppers were stampeding, dropping their bags, dialling loves ones and ducking low behind hastily barricaded department stores. Emergency services leapt into action, throwing up fencing and evicting crowds from nearby streets. The London fire brigade was called, while social media filled with rumours of gunshots and videos of screaming crowds fleeing the station entrance.

Singer Olly Murs, locked inside Selfridges at the time, urged his more than 8 million Twitter followers to get out, if any were inside.

Londoners’ worst fears had been confirmed. In a city primed for terror, it was a familiar feeling. Memories were fresh of attacks on Westminster Bridge, parliament, on London Bridge, at Borough Market and on the tube at Parson’s Green. As one onlooker described afterwards, “What went through my mind immediately was ‘It’s Black Friday in Oxford Circus in a city that’s had incidents,’ and as I ran I was too terrified to look back because I thought I would see a car heading towards us.”

Except there was no car.

There was no incident.

No terrorist attack, no bomb.

An inquest later found that the whole thing had begun with a scuffle on the platform for the Central Line and that the panic, chaos, speculation and misinformation rippled out from there. Because the crowds had been packed in so tightly nobody could see or hear what had happened. Each person had picked up on the fear of the person next to them, and it had mutated and become scarier the further it travelled from the epicentre.

Nobody had information. All they knew was that it was one of the busiest days of the year, in a country that’s a terrorist target, in a city that’s terrorist target, in a shopping area that’s an obvious terrorist target. The fear fed on itself, multiplying and spreading like a virus or pandemic, eventually shutting down parts of one of the world’s biggest cities.

Humans are really good at picking up emotion in other humans.

We’re able to detect the tiniest changes in another person’s expression, in the modulation of their voice or the tensing of their shoulder muscles. Emotion is its own language, and stress, anxiety and fear are some of the strongest words. We speak that language from an early age. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have found that when infants are cradled by their mothers who have just experienced a socially stressful event, the infants’ heart rates go up too. The message transferred via the mother’s pounding heart to their babies is of danger, and the baby responds without needing verbal cues.

We know this instinctively. If your co-worker is stressed you are more likely to tense up and feel stressed yourself. It’s infectious; you’re picking up on their body language. You don’t even need to be in the same room or the same country. Studies show that reading bad news or seeing videos of something scary raises your pulse, makes you sweat and enlarges your pupils. Our pre-programmed physiological reactions to danger can be triggered by a tweet.That’s why the Oxford Street panic was so bad: it was amplified by social media.

Fear can be transmitted digitally as easily as it can be physically.

And that’s a problem, because digital technologies reach everyone. It’s not a few thousand people in a crowd any more. Three quarters of adults on earth now have a smartphone, which means we’re getting 24 hour access to all of the worst stories happening everywhere to 7.6 billion people, all the time. The speed and tenor of cultural conversation is now mindbogglingly fast, and spans the world. The moment something bad happens somewhere on the planet, fear ripples through the ether. One person armed with a bad story can infect millions of others in a few minutes.

That’s why, right now, the English-speaking world is in the middle of a fear pandemic.

Every day terrifying stories sweep through the global village, in articles, tweets and evening broadcasts, and are fed back and amplified again a million times until there’s nowhere to hide. Mental illness, foreign infidels, chronic pain, hooded extremists, robots coming to take our jobs, burning forests, warlike naval manoeuvres, marching racists, algorithmic bias, rising waters, surveillance regimes, trade wars, toxic chemicals, predatory capitalism, roaming gangs of criminal youths, drug overdoses, benefit-devouring migrant caravans massing at the border… the list goes on and on.

The fear virus takes hundreds of forms, and mutates and spreads every time we click or watch, or mutter darkly about the future at family dinner.

At times it feels like we’re helpless against the onslaught. Our cognitive biases leave us ill-equipped to deal with the nature of the digital plague. Amygdala hijacks and warped media business models are just the tip of the iceberg. Recency bias means we give more weight to stuff we’ve heard recently: the latest cholera outbreak feels representative of the bigger problem, yet we forget about the UNICEF time series showing that global deaths are on the decline. The availability heuristic causes us to give more weight to things that are easier to imagine. Thanks to decades of priming by news broadcasts and Hollywood thrillers, it’s a lot easier to picture a lone gunman rampaging through a school, or the journalist ambushed and murdered at an embassy.

We’re discovering new cognitive biases all the time too.

There’s one known as concept creep, pioneered by Daniel Gilbert at Harvard, and Nick Haslam at the University of Melbourne. If we’re looking for danger and it then disappears, we seek out new, lesser forms of danger to replace it. In one study, Gilbert’s team of Harvard researchers showed volunteers a series of computer-generated faces and asked them to decide which ones seem threatening. As they showed fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, the volunteers expanded their definition of ‘threatening’ to maintain a similar number. Eventually, in a sea of smiling faces even a slight frown seems scary. Danger it turns out, is a relative concept rather than an absolute one.

Image credit:  Science Node

Image credit: Science Node

As David Levari explains, there’s a good reason for this. Our brains have evolved to conserve energy, and relative comparisons use less energy than absolute measurements. It’s a lot easier to remember which of your cousins is the tallest than to remember how tall each cousin is. Whenever it can, our brain uses rules of thumbs, shortcuts, because that’s usually enough information to safely make decisions while expending as little effort as possible. Concept creep is a great example of this in action. The human watcher will evaluate faces as threatening long after they have ceased to be so, or identify the slightest scuffle as the sign of a terrorist attack if primed by the news to be on the lookout. Better to run away and be wrong, than to stay put and be wrong.

Perceived threat also triggers a stress reaction that makes us better at processing information that conveys unrelated bad news. A series of brain imaging studies by neuroscientists in New York for example, have shown that there is physiological evidence for this; unexpected signs of danger trigger a neural signal that switches on the part of our brain that gets us ready for learning.

When firefighters have had a few hectic days in a row, they’re far more likely to predict that there’s a chance they could be involved in a car accident or become a victim of credit card fraud. It doesn’t matter that these have nothing to do with fires. The world just seems like a more dangerous place. When students are told they have to give a surprise public speech, their cortisol levels spike, their heart rates go up and they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming research on rates of disease and violence.

In 2018, we’re all in the same boat as those students. We’ve become really good at identifying the bad things that are happening all around us. Every time we catch the fear virus, it leaves us more susceptible to the next outbreak. We’re living like firefighters on call, constantly ready to put out the flames in our news alerts and on our social media feeds.

The unrelenting messages of doom cycle at lightspeed through the information superhighway in the same way panic spread through the crowds at Oxford Circus a year ago, paralysing us, causing further panic, making us more likely to watch out for more trouble, and leaving everyone in a permanent state of anxiety.

A classic here, from  The Oatmeal

A classic here, from The Oatmeal

Here’s the thing that really gets to us.

By almost any measure you care to use, the world is becoming a better place. The large scale evidence for this has already been well documented by people such as Max Roser, Stephen Pinker and the late, great Hans Rosling. Poverty is disappearing, battle deaths are falling, violence is less common, suicide is decreasing, life expectancy is increasing, literacy is on the rise, child mortality is declining, we’re winning the wars on diseases such as AIDS, cancer and malaria.

The internet has democratised information, education, and business, given voice to the silenced, helped to erode outdated taboos and advanced human rights. If you’ve been following our work here ffor long enough you’ll know that it’s not all perfect, and that there are always setbacks, but that every day, the human species makes incredible progress.

There’s a strange, sad irony in this. We’ve never had it so good, and yet we’ve never been more scared. Just as we’ve reached the point in our evolution where we can see ourselves as we truly are — see the evidence of both the terrible things we’ve always done to each other, and the evidence of our progress in making those things happen less often — we’ve also managed to spook ourselves into a state of abject terror. That’s why the fear virus is so pernicious. It’s as if we’ve been huddled in the cave for millennia, waiting for the storm to pass. And just as it’s started to taper off we’ve stoked the fire, made the shadows dance higher on the walls and retreated even further into the dark.

We can’t afford to do that, because there’s a long road ahead. Not all the news is good: the 21st century has brought a series of new challenges (and a few old ones that look suspiciously familiar) into full view. Populism, ecological collapse, economic inequality, mounting disasters as climate change accelerates. Poverty, war, hunger, disease, and intolerance are still with us, and we need to continue working on them. A healthy respect for the scale and magnitude of these challenges is important because it creates awareness, and the basis for a common understanding. That’s what allows us to work together.

But when awareness tips over into unnecessary fear, when the virus becomes so virulent that it causes us to panic, we stop. Fear paralyses us and blinds us to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. It causes us to confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. It makes us miss the possibility that behind the end of the old ways there might be new ones poking through. A terrified populace is far more susceptible to the appeals of strongmen who want to make countries great again, or demagogues who see politics as a zero sum game. A terrified populace is less willing to stand up and fight for an economy that doesn’t cost the earth.

So don’t let the fear virus get you.

When the stories reach you, don’t cough and pass them on. Every time you do that, you act as a vector, infecting your friends, your family and your followers. Make sure the fear virus stops with you. That’s the very least you can do.

If you’re willing to go one step further ask yourself, “am I willing to be a physician or a nurse in this fight?” Instead of passing on stress and outrage, can you pass on stories of change or progress? In the panic at Oxford Circus, it would only have taken a few hundred people to stem the tide by keeping calm and carrying on. Stop panicking, reduce the anxiety of those around you, give everyone the gift of more time to think and evaluate, the opportunity to make better decisions.

In all of this, remember that every step we take is the mark of a species that is willing to challenge itself and press forward, seeking out wonder, identifying problems and solving them, one that has the ability to look inward by looking outward. So take time too, to enjoy the successes and celebrate them. Kill the fear in its tracks. Replace it with new narratives about how our best natures can overcome our worst: how the goodwill, cooperation and kindness of humans can overcome the wickedness, self-deception and greed of humans.

The poison, as always, is also the cure.

Angus Hervey