The Power of Nightmares

A survey of 2000 British adults conducted by the Mental Health Foundation and published yesterday suggests that 77 per cent of people consider the world more frightening than in 1999. While the economic climate is seen as part of the reason for the levels of fear, the report also claims that there are other factors and especially the “worst-case scenario language” used by politicians, pressure groups, businesses and public bodies around issues such as knife-crime, MRSA, bird-flu and especially terrorism.

Whether you believe this has been deliberate is up to you but the intentional use of fear to get people to think in a particular way  is nothing new. It has always been a key element of religious systems for thousands of years. And the idea of its (mis)use by government was hardwired into our worldview by Orwell. The use of fear by governments (and their counterpart terrorist groups) was also the subject of a documentary by national treasure Adam Curtis a few years ago. You can see the first part of his film The Power of Nightmares in the link above. The rest of the film is available on Google video.

As Adam Curtis points out in this and other films, especially his film Century of the Self, fear is also a useful tool for marketers. There is a perpetual drive to create or draw attention to new problems or highlight old ones to get people to buy products. Underlying a great deal of advertising is fear, of being too  fat, too smelly, too out of touch, too old, too spotty, of buying food that take too much time to prepare, of having too slow a digestion or one that is too fast. It’s the same with business to business marketing where often the appeal is to fear of litigation or financial loss, of losing market share or whatever.

What we have created is a world that seems fearful on many levels. The mechanisms to introduce us to new fears and deepen our existing ones are more widespread, sophisticated and in many ways out of control than at any time in history. The Internet is a breeding ground for conspiracy and misinformation. Opinion is cheap and easy to dress as fact, supported by the meme that people are ‘entitled to their opinions’ regardless of the information they are using to form those opinions. What this has led to is typified by the MMR scare, a near hysterical organic campaign of misinformation led by the likes of Jeni Barnett as chronicled on Ben Goldacre’s excellent blog.  What this has ultimately led to is misdirected fear, wasted energy, a needless delusion that has driven a rise in something we should genuinely fear; childhood measles.


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