How Fear and Anger Impact Our Thinking

fear_anger_by_adriana4ever-d8toxr5Last week I happened to hear a fascinating piece on Morning Edition about “How Emotional Responses To Terrorism Shape Attitudes Toward Policies.”  Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s social science correspondent, looked into research on how the feelings evoked by recent attacks translate into feelings about policies.

Listen to it here:

Here are some of the bits that stood out for me (Quotations are taken from the transcript here.  Emphasis added):

  • We tend to feel personally at risk
    • “Research conducted after the 9/11 attacks, for example, showed not only that many Americans were fearful about terrorism in general, but they thought that they were personally at very high risk of becoming victims.”
  • Men, especially, turn the fear into anger, reducing the feeling of risk but also making it harder to think clearly
    • “[Researchers] find, in general, women are more likely to respond to these events with fear and men are more likely to respond with anger.  Now, on the plus side, anger reduces your sense of risk, so compared to the fearful people, angry people are less likely to think that they themselves will become victims. But anger produces its own set of biases. Lerner and others find that by lowering our sense of risk, anger simplifies our thinking and increases our willingness to take risks. It increases our willingness to act aggressively.”
  • “Literally less able to think in complex ways”
    • “So, for example, when she shows civilians pictures of Arabs celebrating after the 9/11 attacks or she shows military and national security experts pictures of an ISIS fighter standing beside American journalist James Foley right before the journalist was beheaded, it triggers anger in both groups and causes both civilians and experts to simplify their thinking. So they’re literally less able to think in complex ways when they’re angry.”
  • Ways to compensate for the emotional reactions
    • “I’m not sure you can take emotional reactions out of the equation, but you might be able to limit the effects of the biases, David. The first thing to do is actually just to recognize that fear and anger change the way we see the world – to recognize these biases exist. The second thing is before you make policies, run your ideas by someone else. Having a sounding board provides you with guard rails.”