mary_catherine_bateson's picture
Professor Emerita, George Mason University; Visiting Scholar, Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College; Author, Composing a Further Life
Systematic Thinking About How We *Package* Our Worries

This seems to be a moment for some systematic thinking about how we package our worries.

Most people seem to respond only if they have the ability to visualize a danger and empathize with the victims. This suggests the need for:

A realistic time frame. Knowledgeable people expected an eventual collapse of the Shah's regime in Iran, but did nothing because there was no pending date. In contrast, many prepared for Y2K because the time frame was so specific.

A specific concern for those who will be harmed. If a danger lies beyond my lifetime, it may seem significant if it threatens my grandchildren. People empathize more easily with polar bears and whales than with honey bees and bats. They care more about natural disasters in countries they have visited.

A sense of what the proximate danger is, which is often a by-product or side effect of what is talked about. Global warming was a bad description of a danger because it sounded comfy, and even climate change sounds fairly neutral. Extreme weather conditions causing humanitarian disasters can get more attention. Regional warfare for access to resources (oil) or arable land may be more salient than a few degrees of temperature change or rising ocean surfaces. It is entirely possible that global warming will lead to nuclear war as a side effect, but that is not where our concern needs to be.

There is a need for research on the social psychology of fear and anxiety, which is undoubtedly going to be different from what we know about the individual psychology of fear and anxiety. For instance, it seems probable that a sense of chronic threat is a permanent element in some populations. What has replaced fear of the "red menace" in Americans and how has this replacement affected attitudes to immigration or to the deficit? How essential is the state of constant threat to Israeli social solidarity? How consciously has the United States government manipulated the fear of terrorism in US politics? How does the fear of "stranger danger" displace the fear of domestic violence? Arguably, humans may require a certain amount of worry to function effectively, whether this worry is fear of hell or fear of the neighbors. If this is the case, it might be safer to focus on worrying about the Red Sox winning the pennant.