Monday, October 29, 2007

Culture of fear

Blog Number Two
Question: Is our culture becoming increasingly fearful, risk-averse, suspicious, even paranoid? What social psychology theory and research evidence speaks to this question?

Hardly a day goes by when we are not confronted with stories of disaster on the horizon or threats to individual health, safety and security. It is clear that our culture is becoming increasingly fearful, risk-aversive and suspicious, walking a thin line on bordering into paranoid. Numerous social psychological theories to support this and research conducted into culture of fear in society will be discussed and critically analyzed. I will show how although today we can be seen as more fearful and risk-aversive than in our parents or grandparents generation, fear is not always a negative emotion and there are many advantages to being more cautious and aware of the world around us.

You have only to switch on the evening news tonight to get a good dose of what there is out there to be fearful about. We are fearful of the Equine influenza (Horse flu), a terrorist attack on our own soil, airline safety, cancer, ‘stranger danger’ and the safety of offspring, just to mention a few. It is clear that our culture is becoming increasingly fearful (Furedi, 2007; Glassner, 1999), risk-averse (March, 1996), suspicious, perhaps even to the extent of being paranoid, when in fact we are living longer, healthier, happier lives than ever before (Furedi, 1997; Glassner, 1999; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). In spite of this, we have even been labeled the age that ‘loves to be scared’.

Fear and risk minimizing measures are easily observable in everyday life. We seem to be increasingly fearful compared to our parents and grandparents generations (Furedi, 1997), however it can be seen that we are fearful of the wrong things (Cadzow, 2004). For instance, you can see young females lock their doors for fear when they get into their car at night, but dangerously talk on their mobile phone while driving. You can see young children not allowed to play outside after dark but are allowed to sit in their rooms on the internet being exposed to all sorts of damaging information as well as predators. In my parent’s day, they did not travel in cars containing air bags and at the beach my mum would put baby oil on her skin to ‘make it softer and burn more easily, so that I would tan more easily.’ As a 12 year old she used to hop on the train from Newcastle and head down to Sydney for the day by herself (A. Myers, personal communication, October 4, 2007). It is clear that our perception of risk is out of proportion to the reality of risk. Compared to my upbringing, people of my parents generation had much more freedom and lived their lives with less knowledge and awareness of the consequences, for example of getting skin cancer by putting baby oil on your skin instead of sunscreen. Although our parents generation seemed to be more free and innocent, we have grown more fearful but we have also become more wise and educated, more healthy and more aware (Furedi, 2007; Glassner, 1999; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005; Tranter, 1996).

It is natural for parents to be worried about their offspring, but when you look at the figures in the table shown in Appendix B, many of these fears are unfounded. Although we fear for our children’s safety and educate them heavily not to talk to strangers, it’s in fact the people that you already know that you should fear, with studies showing that more than 90 percent of Australian child homicide victims are killed by their own parents (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005). Moreover, on average since 1999, only one child under the age of 15 is killed by a stranger per year in on our soil (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1999). We are more fearful because we are now fully aware of the possible outcomes of allowing our child to go to the park by themselves and we would rather be called the ‘mean parent’ by the child and be risk-aversive rather than risk-taking (March, 1996; Roberts, Smith & Bryce, 1995).


Research has found that individualistic cultures are more risk-aversive than collectivistic culture (Furedi, 1997; Glassner, 1999; Wadham, Pudsey & Boyd, 2007). This is evident in Western society with findings of studies indicating that we are becoming so risk-aversive that our children have been labeled the ‘bubble-wrap generation’ (Cadzow, 2004; March, 1996; Tranter, 1996).

Australian children have been found to have markedly decreased freedom due to fears held by parents than our British and American counterparts. This social isolation and constant nagging of children by their parents to ‘be careful on the swing, don’t go on the road, never talk to strangers’ has been found by behavioural scientists to be negatively impact their emotional and intellectual development (Furedi, 1997). Not just merely cushioning them through life, but parents bubble-wrapping their children will lead them to have a lack of exposure to developmental challenges and when they finally do come across a fear, ‘it will hit them for 6’. However, parents seem to disagree with the disadvantages of this ‘safety culture’ and have adopted the attitude of ‘better safe than sorry.’ Tranter (1996) found 80 per cent of 10-year-old German children were allowed to travel alone to places other than school compared with 37 per cent of Australian children. Dwindling family sizes has also been said to be factor, with parents given more temptation to treat each child like a ‘rare and fragile flower’ (Cadzow, 2004). Increased wealth and consequently comfort has also given families the feeling that they have more to lose and as a result, more for them to protect and safeguard (Tranter, 1996). The current average age of moving out of home is 25 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006) and although increases in house prices and competitiveness in the rental market cannot be ruled out as an influencing factor, neither can the comfort and safety of the family home that children feel (March, 1996).

Research also tells us that a culture filled with risk-aversion has been shown to have negative impacts, such as decreasing curiosity, increasing reluctance to learn from your mistakes and venture into the unknown which are urges essential for broadening and expanding your horizons (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005; March, 1996). In order to become a well adjusted and well balanced adult, children need to be faced with fear and overcome it (Cadzow, 2004).

Research has also shows that our perception of risk has changed dramatically. Scott Higginbotham, a NASA engineer emphasized this in his statement:

‘We go fight a war in 1940 and we lose millions of people, but the result was worth it in the end. We go to another place these days, and if two people get shot, (the reaction is) ‘Oh my gosh. We need to pull out now’. Not to belittle human life – which is absolutely precious – but our perspective of risk has totally changed.’

When you are onboard a flight, you can witness countless people during the course of the flight getting up from their seats, walking around stretching, doing simple leg exercises and stretches to reduce the risk of getting Deep Vein Thrombosis. Yet a large study by doctors at the University of Amsterdam has found no evidence that air transport can raise passengers’ risk of DVT (Glassner, 1999).

Research has shown that as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans believed they were soaring (Glassner, 1999) and were afraid of the ‘mad poisoner’ at Halloween (see Appendix F). Media influences can therefore be seen as making us fearful of the wrong things (Furedi, 1997; Glassner, 1999; Tranter, 1996). We are in fact not living in more dangerous times, but we are clearly living in times that are more highly aware of the dangers that may lie in wait around us (Furedi, 1997).


There are numerous explanations that have been put forward to explain this ‘culture of fear’ that will be discussed. In this day and age, we are very prone to finding a party we can hold accountable for every single accident ‘that could and should have been prevented’ (Glassner, 1999). The topic of ‘culture of fear’ is no exception, whereby we have a tendency to point our fingers at politicians and the media (Furedi, 1997). Politicians use ‘scare campaigns’ to gain power and create an image that they are the ‘publics protector’ and media uses it, intelligently crafting their news stories in a very dramatic way to get their ratings up (Singer & Endreny, 1993). However, it is also important to bear in mind that the media increase or calms society’s sense of risk, but do not cause it (Furedi, 1997, Glassner, 1999). Some cultures may be more impressionable than others by media reports (Tranter, 1996).

One major theory of this culture of fear is the cultivation theory, which is supported chiefly by George Gerbner. This theory underlines the negative affects of media violence and states that people often get deceived with false images and perceptions of the outside world, for example violence on television can lead to ‘mean world syndrome’ where people get perception that the world is a much worse and evil place than it actually is.

Glassner reinforces this theory, stating three key elements that the media uses in successfully creating fear and risk-aversive behaviour:

1) From a mere few isolated incidents, mass media creates panics & hysteria, intelligently crafting news stories, making them very dramatic
2) Hard scientific proof is replaced with anecdotal evidence
3) The people that the media locates to make comments do not have the authorization to be regarded as an expert.

It is clear that our perception of risk is out of proportion to the reality of risk.

In his book Culture of fear, Furedi (2002) also highlights the five key trends he believes has contributed to this risk-aversive society as well as a culture of fear (See Appnedix E) whereby safety has become a moral principle and top priority over everything else; as well as the crucial loss of the belief of individual autonomy.

Our culture becoming increasingly fearful has been heavily discussed, but in terms of our culture becoming increasingly suspicious, one can draw on the 2005 Cronulla riots, whereby the intense suspicious of Middle Eastern Australians lead to the scene of racist, mob-violence in what has been described as a ‘disgusting, un-Australian and shameful behaviour’ involving a 5,000-strong mob assaulting people suspected of being Lebanese origin (Wadham, Pudsey & Boyd, 2007). This social psychological example of group behaviour comprises of plentiful examples that we have studied over the course of this semester, including anti-social behaviour, prejudice, stereotypes, aggression, diffusion of responsibility, deindividuation, in groups and out groups (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008; Hogg & Vaughan, 2005), as well as the negative affects of the media.

In summation, it is clear that our culture has become increasingly fearful, risk-averse and suspicious of others. Although the blame seems to lie with politicians and mass media, there are numerous theories suggesting causes for the culture of fear. In spite of the fact that we may have grown more fearful, fear is not a terribly negative emotion and over time we have also grown more wise, more aware of risks as well as living longer, healthier lives. Various advantages and disadvantages have been discussed and I believe that society needs to find a healthy balance somewhere between content with your lifestyle and actively aware of your surroundings. Moreover, I believe this importance of taking risks needs to be highlighted to our youths.


Australian Bureau Statistics

Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature (1st ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Beck, U. (1996). ‘Risky society and the provident state’, in Lash, S., Szerszynski, B. and Wynne, B. (eds) Risk, environment and modernity: Towardsa new ecology (London: Sage), pp. 28-9; and Beck, Risk Society, p.26.

Cadzow, J. (2004, January 17) ‘The bubble-wrap generation’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Good. Weekend supplement, p. 18.

Furedi, F. (1997). Culture of fear: Risk-taking and the morality of low expectation. London: Cassell.

Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. New York: Basic Books.

Harms, E. (1937). Paranoid tendencies in social behaviour. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 32(3-4), 431-438.

Hogg, M.A. & Vaughan, G.M. (2005). Introduction to Social Psychology (4th ed.). Harlow: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Kaufman, W. (1994). No turning back: Dismantling the fantasies of environmental thinking. New York: Basic Books.

March, J.G. (1996). Learning to be risk averse. Psychological review, 103(2), 309-319.

Roberts, H., Smith, S. & Bryce, C. (1995). Children at risk? Safety as a social value. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Singer, E. & Endreny, P.M. (1993). Reporting on risk. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Tranter, P. J. (1996) Children's independent mobility and urban form in Australasian, English and German cities., in: D. Hensher, J. King and T. Oum (Eds.) World Transport Research: Proceedings of the seventh world conference on transport research, Volume 3: Transport Policy, pp. 31-44, Sydney, World Conference on Transport Research.

Wadham, B., Pudsey, J. & Boyd, R. (2007). Culture and education. Frenchs Forest: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Appendix A: Self Evaluation

There are many social psychological theories which speak to this idea of a culture of fear and with the restrictive word limit in mind, I clearly identified and discussed the major and most relevant theories, applying them to real life situations. I did this to the best of my ability considering this was a topic not directly covered in the unit.
There has been much research conducted into risk-aversion, paranoia and fearfulness within our culture, however research directly related to ‘culture of fear’ is rather limited. Moreover, research has failed to find many other causes for this apart from the influence of mass media and scare campaigns by political leaders.

Written expression
Word count: 1,497 (not including abstract, quotations, subheadings, in-text references and citations, appendices or reference list)
My blog is laid out in an easy to read format, with a light background and dark font. Tables, quotations, appropriate statistics as well as subheadings have made my argument more clear and organized.

Online engagement
My online engagement has improved greatly since the submission of the first blog and my technological skills and knowledge in using blogging has also increased significantly. Prior to the actual Blog 2 submission, I posted numerous other blogs relating to the topic of ‘culture of fear’ as well as embedding a video and creating two separate polls to draw feedback from other students.

Appendix B
A Safer Place Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics
Deaths of children aged five to 14 1972 1982 1992 2002
All causes 883 715 433 358
Medical conditions 474 343 234 225
External causes 409 372 199 133
Motor vehicle accidents 239 234 117 68
Pedal cyclist 45 54 14 7
Pedestrian 106 62 40 24
Other 88 118 63 37
Accidental poisoning 6 3 0 0
Accidental falls 7 9 5 5
Accidents caused by fires and flames 7 8 6 2
Accidental drownings and suffocation 79 43 27 32
Suicide 5 12 7 8
Homicide 10 17 7 5

Appendix C – Notable quotations

‘Anyone who set out to discover new countries and continents – like Colomubus – certainly accepted ‘risks’. But there were personal risks, not global dangers like those that arise for all of humanity from nuclear fission or the storage of radioactive waste. In the earlier period, the word ‘risk’ had a note of bravery and adventure, not in the threat of self-destruction of all life on Earth.’

‘The power of technology to extend our perceptions of the natural world has challenged even our strongest principles. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is still a sound idea, but because we can see into wombs, fertilise human eggs in a test tube, and pump air and blood into people after their brain had died, we are now arguing over the very definition of life and killing… we are using sophisticated biological investigation and computer calculations to measure risk. We are going to have to decide how much risk is too much, and even how many deaths we will tolerate.’ Kaufman (1994)

Suburbs are known only to dogs and children.
They sniff, circle, explore, trespass, uncover,
Unguessed, circuitous byways and acquire
Bizarre acquaintances. Children and dogs discover
All of a suburb…
-Nancy Keesing

‘Not anymore they don’t. The dogs are on leashes. The kids are inside.’ Jane Cadzow

"False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship" Barry Glassner

Appendix D: Glossary of terms used
Flash mob - a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse.

DVT - Deep vein thrombosis is a condition where a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in the leg. DVT can cause pain and may lead to complications such as pulmonary embolism. It most commonly happens in the deep veins of the lower leg (calf), and can spread up to the deep veins in the thigh. Rarely, it can develop in other deep veins, for example in the arm.

‘mean world syndrome’ - can occur when frequent consumers of news media begin to perceive the world around them as an unrealistically mean and dangerous place. It is described as the distinguishing characteristic of Media Induced Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (MIPTSD).

Appendix E

In his book Culture of fear, Furedi (2002) also highlights the five key trends he believes has contributed to this risk-aversive society as well as a culture of fear:

1. Moral shift in reaction to harm, with individuals and groups no longer believing in natural disasters or acts of God. People are quick to suspect someone is behind it and find that someone to pin the blame on.
2. Harm is portrayed in an overly dramatic fashion. People are no longer expected to rise upwards and onwards from their ordeals, but are labeled ‘perpetually haunted’ and ‘scarred for life’.
3. In spite of the fact we are living healthier and longer lives, life is perceived as a dangerous thing.
4. Safety has become a moral principle and has taken number one priority over everything else. Schools now have slogans that ‘our number one priority is your children’s safety’ however Furedi raises the questions that shouldn’t their priority it be teaching children to read and write?
5. Radical redefinition of personhood – people no longer believe in the idea of individual autonomy. People are represented as weak and vulnerable decreasing our capacity to deal with risks.

Appendix F

At Halloween time in America in 1995, media reports were rife about a ‘mad poisoner’ putting razor blades and poison in Halloween confectionary and distributing it to children (Glassner, 1999). This fear still lives in the United States today although until 2000, there had not been a single proven incident in which a child was injured by Halloween sweet from a stranger (Glassner, 1999). Parents should be fearful more of the sugar and fat content of the confectionary and junk food their children put into their mouths at Halloween more so than the threat of ‘poisoned sweets’ given out by strangers.

1 comment:

James Neill said...

1.Overall, this is a solid and interesting overview of the culture of fear from a socio-psychological perspective. The main areas for improvement are in the conciseness (over word limit), depth of referencing and .
Strong, clear abstract, with distinctive voice.
Clear, engaging introduction.
Several theories are embedded within the discussion of the research review, and there is reasonable evidence of connecting ideas between the essay topic and the unit contents.
A concept map or table could have been used to help organise and communicate your central ideas and their interrelationship without adding to the word count.
I thought there may have been value is examining the psychology of fear more deeply from a theoretical point of view, e.g., what is it's psychology function? This could have help to bolster your (somewhat unfounded) argument that the increase in risk-aversion is not all bad. Another way of saying this is that your evidence and theory mostly support the position that society is worse off for the increased risk-aversion, yet your conclusion was that it's also made us wiser and more aware. This evidence presented didn't seem quite consistent with the argument.
I thought perhaps the notion of stress innoculation may be worth a mention here in terms of why and how taking risks can be healthy and developmental.
Although research directly on this topic is somewhat difficult to identify, you used several interesting, relevant and appropriate resources.
Direct referencing of ABS reports would be preferable.
It would have been possible to cite more psychological studies about what people fear and this relationship between these fears and actual occurrence.
6.Written Expression
You adopted a distinct voice, which was good to see.
It could have probably been better written entirely in third person. It should also be written for the broadest possible audience (e.g., avoid local references to 'this semester')
An extra subheading to indicate the introduction would have helped readability.
Use of subheadings improved readability.
Appendix B potentially offered interesting information, but was low in readability.
Relevant photograph; ideally use APA style to include as a figure, with a caption, etc. and cite the source.
Additional appendices aided readability.
Tidy summary and conclusion.
8.Online Engagement
Overall, online engagement was moderately low.
Some additional 'news style' blog postings.
No evidence (e.g., links) provided of comments on others' blogs or the discussion list.
Additional appendices added to engagement.
9.Referencing & Citations
~10-15 appropriate references were cited (slightly above average; room for more peer-reviewed references).
Referencing style was in very good APA style.
Don't include issue numbers.
ABS reference should be to a specific report.
Reference for “Australian children have been found to have markedly decreased freedom due to fears held by parents than our British and American counterparts.”?
10.Grammar & Spelling
Grammar and spelling was moderately good.
Ownership apostrophes e.g., parents -> parent's
Use Australian spelling, e.g., minimizing -> minimising