How Does Fear Affect Our Social Lives?

Who are we (not) reaching out to?

Posted Jan 05, 2021

Much has been written about how the physical distancing and isolation measures in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have increased loneliness. While this is undoubtedly an important way in which the current pandemic is affecting our social lives, there are others worth considering.

One of these pertains to the effects of fear on social relationships. For many of us, the pandemic has been associated with at least some fears—the fear that we, or our loved ones, will contract the virus; the fear that we will pass it on to others, especially those most vulnerable; the fear that our livelihoods will be affected; and even the fear that can be associated with unwittingly failing to follow unrehearsed social rules (e.g., stay sufficiently far from others, not shaking hands). National reports indeed confirm that feelings of fear, or anxiety, have been unusually high and pervasive in the last year. How might fear affect our social lives?

Social scientists have long demonstrated that fear can lead people to come together in an effort to gather strength and resources to combat or overcome what is feared. Studies have found, for example, that survivors of the 2005 London bombings showed impressive solidarity, stopping to help one another despite the strong fear and distress they were experiencing. In a similar vein, we have seen many examples of communities coming together to support their members in coping with the COVID-19 threat. The mutual aid website, established precisely to facilitate community support of those in need during the pandemic, currently lists 2,060 aid groups in the UK alone. This type of behaviour is beneficial to those who receive help, but also to those who provide help, and indeed helping—or the sense of connection and efficacy it engenders—is one of the ways people are advised to combat anxiety.

While it is comforting to reflect on the positive social consequences of such a distressing feeling as fear or anxiety, it is also important to consider the boundaries of this relationship. Specifically, although coming together has been shown to result from fear, fear can also pull people apart. Most obviously, people will try to distance themselves from those whom they fear, and they often fear those they do not know. For example, people from different racial, religious, or national groups often fear one another. Fear might even cause people to derogate others they would not normally be afraid of, just because they are somehow different or unfamiliar (often referred to as an outgroup)—such as when attacks on individuals with disabilities increased in the UK after a series of terrorist attacks.

Less obviously, however, even incidental fear—or fear that does not directly link to judgements being made—can increase social distance or decrease empathy for others. For example, hearing a scary noise, or watching scary images (or perhaps thinking about the threat of COVID-19), can reduce the empathy one feels for the pain experienced by an outgroup member—i.e., an empathy bias. That is, our ability to draw together with others in the face of threats is both rooted in a sense of common fate and identity and constrained by group boundaries.

Many politicians intuitively know this and build fear into their rhetoric to encourage social tribalism. And they are wise to do so, as messages inciting fear are twice as effective at polarising votes as messages without fear. However, the implications of empathy biases for social policy are not always understood, in particular when it comes to the limitations of relying on the goodwill of communities to address social needs. It is heartening to see so much good and voluntary work being done by communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and one might be tempted to see this as a pure demonstration of human kindness. But where there are communities, there are both insiders and outsiders. As such, responses to threat are bound to favour some, and neglect or even disadvantage others, often those who are the least privileged. So, what current scholarship suggests is that we are bound to leave some people out of our helping efforts.

Acknowledging this is an important step towards preventing further inequality. Goodwill goes a long way, but if we are to be truly kind, it is important to acknowledge the pervasiveness of our biases and to develop measures that proactively prevent, monitor, and address social inequalities, which also touch our most seemingly altruistic efforts, such as helping others.

This article is co-authored with Matthew Richins, Ph.D., who carried out his Ph.D. research on empathic biases under my supervision. Matt has worked for Public Health England and is now a Principal Psychologist at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), UK.