When Fear Divides Us

It’s impossible to be calm, think clearly, and be empathic when we are afraid.

Posted Dec 13, 2020

Source: Pexels/Pixabay

You don’t need me to tell you there is a lot of division in this country. How we see the state of our lives diverges widely depending on our politics, where we live, what kind of work we do, our religion, our race. Although this is not new, it feels different today because we thought we had progressed beyond sharp divides. Sadly, we have not. We are divided in our thinking, our beliefs, our values, and perhaps most pressing yet overlooked, our fears.

Fear is that feeling of dread of the unknown or expectation of danger.

Fear is powerful. It can block our abilities to think clearly, to maintain emotional balance, and to have empathy.1 These deficiencies make fear something we need to address. 

Fear can be valuable

Many years ago I read a powerful book, The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.2 It was the first time I thought about fear as a good power to have, which is one of the key points of the book. Some of De Becker’s views may not fit well today, but the premise of the book does. Fear is something we all have that goes back to our earliest instincts for survival and therefore can keep us alive. In dangerous situations, fear can save our lives. See that saber-tooth tiger? Fear will keep you alert and away from danger. Fear can also protect us from making reckless decisions. Would you dive off a cliff into water below without checking if it is safe to do it? Fear alerts us to pay attention. Researching, learning from others, thinking through a situation, these all combine to mitigate our fears and help us make good choices, which helps us to survive.

Fear can be dangerous

But what about fear that is manufactured? Stereotypes, falsehoods, and second-hand information can frighten us even when it is fake and made up. False information that we are told about other groups, people we do not know first-hand, can be frightening. Instead of keeping us safe, manufactured fear can keep us apart, angry, and on the verge of violence. It is meant to mislead us, keep us from learning what people are really like, divide us, and as a result, block our empathy for others. 

If you can convince someone that they should be frightened of others who are not like them, you will reinforce their need to hold closely to those who are like them so they will be protected. It is twisting real fear into manufactured fear. When people in power tap into that fear, it can block us from thinking clearly and from forming empathic connections to those who are in different groups.

The power of fear to block empathy is dangerous. When we are afraid of people who are different from us based on stereotypes and false information, we cannot step outside ourselves to consider the feelings and needs of others. We can’t listen and we don’t engage in clear thinking. In its worst form, manufactured fear has led to war and genocide.3

Embrace fear but recognize false fear

When that sense of danger or dread of the unknown hits you, pay attention. Is this a gift for you to be aware of your surroundings, take precautions, ensure your safety, and react? Or is it manufactured by others to scare you, which blocks you from thinking clearly and makes you angry and afraid? If you are not in immediate danger, you have time to process the fear.

In fact, if you are not in immediate danger that usually tells you that something is triggering emotions and may possibly not be real danger, rather it is manufactured fear. This is your chance to slow down, think through the situation, analyze the information, and take time to assess if your fear is real or manufactured.

Real fear can save our lives, embrace it. Manufactured fear divides us, let it go. And, be sure to give fear the attention it needs so you can distinguish between the two.


1. Richins, M.T., Barreto, M., Karl A., & Lawrence, N. (2019). Incidental fear reduces empathy for an out-group’s pain. Emotion. DOI: 10.1037/emo0000714

2. De Becker, G. (1998). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. New York: Dell Publishing.

3. Robbins, T. J., & DiDomenica, P.J. (2013). Journey from Genesis to genocide: Hate, empathy and the plight of humanity. Pittsburgh: Dorrance.