Don’t Feed the Fear Monster

Does it seem to you that we are collectively on the edge of panic and in a state of fear? The impact of this on our daily lives and our ability to make reasonable short-term and long-term decisions is not good. When in a heightened or prolonged state of fear, the upper (or conscious) brain essentially gets shut down, or at least sidelined, by the amygdala. During such times the amygdala directs new stimuli to the lower brain (subconscious) which is responsible for operations during times of “fight or flight.” It’s sort of like being booted up in “safe mode.” Only essential operations are processed and the rest are set aside.

This was a really useful adaptation when we were the tall predator and also prey species in the tall-grass savanna. Survival relied upon instinctual, immediate reactions when suddenly sensing a fatal scenario. This isn’t our world anymore, but it is still our biology.

Of course, this adaptation is still useful today in the rare, truly life-threatening situation. Recent brain research indicates, however, that even in non life-threatening situations, but prolonged states of high anxiety, stress, and fear the amygdala “over-corrects” and redirects stimuli to the lower brain instead of to the frontal cortex for proper cognitive processing of stimuli and incorporating into our collected wisdom.

Our biology is skewing how we view and interact with each other our modern world. These are indeed perilous times when it comes to seismic shifts in politics, potential environmental collapse, and income/resource inequity. Now, add growing concerns over a pandemic that could easily rival the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, and I get it. I’m fearful too and at times and feel myself slip into a downward spiral and am searching simply for the escape route away from the danger.

The trouble is, at these times our lower brain is taking over, and the only goal is immediate fighting or fleeing for survival. However, the problems we face require not fighting or fleeing, but instead require the evolutionary gifts humanity has over most other vertebrates that also have the fight or flight response. We have an incredible capacity for critical thinking, empathy, morality, and collective wisdom and collaborative problem-solving. With these skills housed in our upper brain, we have capacity for great accomplishments.

To achieve this, we have to recognize when our fear is being fed and taking over. At that time we are not longer utilizing our uniquely human evolutionary (or divinely given if you like) gifts to override the more basal fear response of our lower brain. Don’t feed the fear monster.

Tune out and turn off politicians and pundits that are stoking this constant state of fear. It is literally disrupting our cognitive ability to make reasonable choices and take proper action in response to legitimate anger and fear. Anger and fear can be useful emotions and fuel action and change.

Unfortunately, many of us have been pushed beyond anger to a place of rage. Now, from this place of rage, our lower brain takes over, ready to fight, and we no longer make choices based on wisdom needed for a complex modern world, and we then resort to potentially violent or irrational action. Plus, we become subject to the brainwashing influence of the fear peddlers and no longer utilize our upper, conscious, thinking brain. This can lead to spiraling deeper into fear and then vent it out as rage.

Turn off FOX news, MSNBC, and talk radio. Their business model is to feed this fear to keep you tuned in for the next hour with the next pundit telling you how dangerous it is out there. It may indeed be dangerous, but choose news consumption wisely and in limited doses. A constant barrage of news and a continuous scrolling ticker is not necessary to productively participate in our democracy.

Here’s some potential resource to use to help wade through the noise:

The CRAAP Test

When you search for information, you’re going to find lots of it… but is it good information? You will have to determine that for yourself, and the CRAAP Test can help. The CRAAP Test is a list of questions to help you evaluate the information you find. Different criteria will be more or less important depending on your situation or need. From the Meriam Library at California State University, Chico.

Evaluation Criteria:

Currency: The timeliness of the information.

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Are the links functional?

Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is the one you will use?
  • Would you be comfortable citing this source in your research paper?

Authority: The source of the information.

  • Who is the author / publisher / source / sponsor?
  • What are the author’s credentials or organizational affiliations?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or email address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source (examples: .com .edu .gov .org .net)?

Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content.

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?

Purpose: The reason the information exists.

  • What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?
  • Do the authors / sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?

You can download a PDF version of the CRAAP Test here.

Six questions that will tell you what media to trust

I found this resource from the American Press Institute useful for helping to evaluate news sources. Here are the six questions with some summary, but find the full article here.
1. Type: What kind of content is this?
Is it a news story? Or is it an opinion piece? Is it an ad or what some people call native advertising produced by a company? Is it a reaction to someone else’s content?
2. Source: Who and what are the sources cited and why should I believe them?
Is it a police official? A politician? What party? If it’s research, what organization produced it and what background if any is offered about them?
3. Evidence: What’s the evidence and how was it vetted?
Is the evidence a document? Was it something the source saw as an eyewitness? Is it hearsay, or second-hand? Or are they speculating about someone’s motives or what they might have done?
4. Interpretation: Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence?
Do they follow logically from what has been cited? Sometimes this is a matter of some conclusions making sense but others going too far. Are too many conclusions being drawn from evidence that doesn’t support all of them?
5. Completeness: What’s missing?
Most content should lead to more questions. An important step in being a critical, questioning consumer is to ask yourself what you don’t understand about a subject. Look back at the piece. Did you miss something? Or was it not there?
6. Knowledge: Am I learning every day what I need?
Think about what media you consumed yesterday. What did you learn about? What did you read about?

Here’s a list of sources for fact-checking

  • Snopes Known as the “definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation”
  • Lead Stories Lead Stories uses the Trendolizer™ engine to detect and debunk the latest trending fake news stories and hoaxes found on known fake news sites & networks, prank generators and satirical websites.
  • Media Bias/Fact Check Media Bias/Fact Check (MBFC News), founded in 2015, is an independent online media outlet. MBFC News is dedicated to educating the public on media bias and deceptive news practices.
  • Allsides.com Mission: By providing balanced news, issues and civil dialogue from all sides of the political bias spectrum, AllSides heals polarization and improves our democratic society.
  • False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources
  • Open Secrets “The Center for Responsive Politics is a non-profit, nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy. It maintains a public online database of its information”
  • Fact Check “We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases”
  • Politifact “PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics.”
  • “Fake News,” Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction
  • Google Image Search
  • Misinformation Directory A list of websites that have posted deceptive content from Factcheck.org
  • Fact Checker- The Washington Post From columnist Glenn Kessler, focusing on accuracy of statements of political figures “regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local.”
  • Vote Smart Check voting records, background, and public statements of candidates from around the country.
  • Quote Investigator This records the investigatory work of Garson O’Toole who diligently seeks the truth about quotations. Who really said what? This question often cannot be answered with complete finality, but approximate solutions can be iteratively improved over time.

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2 Responses to Don’t Feed the Fear Monster

  1. Brian Tyler says:

    Tim
    I think your list of fact checking does not cover climate change – a topic that has many false sources. I suggest Skeptical Science at https://skepticalscience.com/. The headline aim of the site is; Explaining climate change science & rebutting global warming misinformation
    Brian

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