A Culture of Fear. The Influence of Fear and Anxiety on our Economic Thinking and Acting

Bachelor Thesis, 2020

83 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Defining Fear and Anxiety
From Fear to Anxiety
The Attraction of Fear
Fear: Omnipresent and Strong

2 The Culture of Fear
Fear and Risk

3 Economics of Fear
Homo Anxietas
Fear and Action
Fear and Performance

4 Beyond Fear





Figure 1. First order dyads formed by combination of neighboring pairs of emotions

Figure 2. Principal emotion induction sites in the human brain

Figure 3. Three levels of uniqueness in mental programming

Figure 4. Analysis framework

Figure 5. Emotion and action: analytic possibilities

Figure 6. Fear and action: analytic possibilities

Figure 7. The Yerkes-Dodson Law: How Anxiety affects Performance


“My heart staggered, my arms spread out; trembling fell on every limb.” (Parkinson, 1998, p.28)

Nietzsche complains that the world has lost much of its charm because we no longer fear it enough (Nietzsche, Montinari, & Colli, 1988, §551). This diagnosis hardly seems to apply to our age. The emergence of a culture of fear can scarcely be said to have made the world more charming, either.

Fear is dark and heavy. It laces one’s throat, takes our breath away, freezes us. Fear is a feeling that everyone knows, and nobody wants to have. It can force one to hide at home all day — or to constantly flee from something. It can lie on one’s chest like a heavy, unbearable weight. Those who are afraid can no longer think clear mainly because they are afraid of losing something: their face, their money, their child, their security. Whatever our fear may be directed to, whether it appears rational or irrational, diffuse, floating, object-related, or chronic: it is, in any case, existential. It shows us what we could lose — and at the same time hinders us from preventing that loss.

Fear is a phenomenon that seems to affect everybody in modern society, it knows no social limits. The CEO sitting in front of her computer is just as prone to anxiety as the hotel cleaner on his way to the next room, the oncologist picking up her kids from school, or the model looking in the mirror. Fear is endless in its content, too: fear of relationships, fear of flying, fear of homelessness, fear of cardiovascular disease, fear of terrorism, fear of losing social status, fear of public speaking, fear of inflation. And fear can develop along any time axis. We may be afraid of the future because everything has gone too well up to this point; we may be afraid of the present because we are worried about our next steps. After all, a decision in favor of one alternative is always a decision against another. Finally, we may even be afraid of the past if we think that past events could catch up with us (Bude & Spengler, 2018).

In uncertain times, individual fears are often raised to a general social mood, an attitude to life of an entire society. Today, fear seems to serve as an explanation for everything: populism or Brexit, the refugee crisis, or as a buying decision. Given the growing complexity of a world in which everything is interwoven and where news pours down on us in real-time, one might get the feeling that fear is the predominant emotion in our culture.

In this thesis, I aim to analyze the concept of fear and anxiety in order to understand its impact on people living in Western culture. In particular, the influence of fear and anxiety on peoples’ economic thinking and decision-making will be analyzed to understand what possible financial/economic loss may come with growing fear and anxiety.

I chose to examine my analysis looking at Western culture mainly because fear plays a peculiar role here. Professor of International Health, Hans Rosling, divided our world not into “developed” and “developing” countries but into four income levels depending on the average income per person in US dollars per day. On Level 1, people earn $2 or less per day, on level 2, it is ≤ $8, on level 3 ≤ $32, and finally more than $32 per day on level 4. On each of these levels, the life of people changes significantly, mainly because of differences in access to education, water, electricity, medicine, consumer goods, etc. But not only infrastructure and education change with the income level. Emotions change too, especially their reasons and utility. Our fears are hardwired in our brains for evolutionary reasons. They once helped our ancestors to survive and thus guaranteed the continued existence of our species. Rosling claims that in modern times our perceptions of these dangers are still triggering our ingrained fear instincts. While these fears remain helpful for people living on levels 1 and 2, they may cause more harm than good to people, living on levels 3 and 4, where life is less physically dangerous, and people can afford to protect themselves against nature (Rosling et al., 2018).

The fear instinct of people living in Western cultures today (mainly level 4), may harm them by distorting their worldview and influencing their decision making. People then seem to allow emotional, instinctive reactions rather than adhering to rational logic. This phenomenon defines the scope of this work.

Besides, this thesis is divided into four main chapters, each of which has several subchapters. In Chapter 1, I examine in-depth research on emotions and fear/anxiety using the findings of several arts such as neurobiology, philosophy, and sociology in order to understand what emotions are in general and what kind of emotions fear and anxiety are in particular.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to the title of this thesis. Here I am analyzing the role fear and anxiety play in the minds of people living in Western cultures today. I start by defining what culture is and then examine an analysis of historically relevant, and current evidence from research which demonstrates the transition of fear from a physical alarm mechanism to a cultural characteristic of our society.

In Chapter 3, the impact this culture of fear poses on decision-making will be analyzed. This chapter aims to convince the reader that fear is not only paralyzing our thoughts and body reactions but also our economic potential. I, therefore, conducted in-depth conceptual research with knowledge mainly deriving from the field of behavioral economics.

Finally, in Chapter 4, I will demonstrate possible ways leading us beyond the culture of fear , helping to regain not an optimistic but a critical and realistic worldview led by rationality rather than emotionality.

This thesis is subject to limited space. Thus, I try to convey my findings concisely, yet, without leaving out relevant discoveries. The outcome of my research is analyzed and described as freely as possible of personal opinions. Nevertheless, I recommend the reader to maintain a critical view and –if time allows– to read some of the referenced research papers — especially those from the field of behavioral economics.

1 Defining Fear and Anxiety

“Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.” (Hannah Arendt, 1977)

The English word anxiety and its counterparts in other languages (e.g. angustia in Spanish, angoscia in Italian, angoisse in French, Angst in German) derives from the Latin anxietas, which in turn has origins in ancient Greek angh (Online Dictionary Etymology, 2020). There are over three dozen English words that are either synonyms, variations, or aspects of fear and anxiety (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020 1).

Some emotion researchers view all –or at least most– of the terms as strength measurements of varying degrees of fear: on the low end are concerned, nervous, apprehensive, and worried in the center are threatened, scared, and frightened, and on the other end are panicked and terrified. Another approach maintains the centrality of fear and anxiety as an aversive experience group and defines particular members of these two groups. Frightened, panicked, scared, and terrified are regarded as states that have an observable cause and an immediate outcome and are therefore considered modes of fear, while anguished, worried, dreaded, nervous, concerned, and troubled are regarded as variants of anxiety because the source or trigger is more amorphous and the effects less definite. Yet, even this straightforward approach in the study of fear and anxiety points at a source of uncertainty. Although these terms are often used to describe groups of experience, they are usually applied more narrowly to refer to various forms of feelings: in this sense, fear is regarded as only one particular form of fearful experience, whereas anxiety is just one particular form in the continuum of anxious experiences. The degree to which the instances in each group are genuinely distinct states of fear or anxiety or only minor variants, or even synonyms, of the same condition is unclear.

However, it seems to be clear why fear has developed as an evolutionary phenomenon: a person lacking the capacity to experience fear would have a lower chance of survival and reproduction. Thus, fear can often be of great benefit to us. It increases our preparation and hence can get us out of risky circumstances or prevent us from ever getting into such situations. Apart from protecting human beings from wild predators and other external threats, fear also prevents self-initiated harm, such as jumping off dangerous heights. Fear does serve to keep us safe. Yet it can become dysfunctional, too. This would be the case when there is a disparity between fear and its source, or when it causes us to lose control (LeDoux, 2005, p. 119; Svendsen, 2009, p. 21).

Before discussing what behavior human beings adopt when they fear or are anxious, I want to describe both terms in more depth. Therefore, I will use a variety of different approaches like neurobiology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology that can help us to understand what kind of an emotion fear is. To be able to give a clear understanding of both emotional states, we first have to answer the question of what an emotion is in general. Within this thesis, I do not plan to write all that much about the mere concept of emotions –as the focus is on fear– hence, I will move on relatively quickly to fear and anxiety. However, some fundamental points and hypotheses need to be touched on.


There is controversy about the concept of fear in disciplines such as philosophy and psychology, although recent interdisciplinary studies on human and animal emotions have arisen a shared ground of understanding. This consensus involves the belief that nearly all emotions (in both humans and other animals) require some level of processing of information about the well-being of the animal. Even non-linguistic animals have thoughts in some way about what is good and bad for them, and they integrate these impressions into their emotions. Thus, emotions may not be mindless electricity bumps, but rather concentrated and reflected the outer environment. They are thought to report weaknesses, the reliance on things outside of an individual, and its commitment to objects it cannot completely influence (Nussbaum, 2019, pp. 23-24).

“Emotion” is a concept that may encompass a range of widely dissimilar states — from pain and thirst to joy, envy, and love. From the almost solely physiological to the almost completely mental. We can see that the emotions first named are more “physical” while those last-named are more “cognitive”. Hence, a distinction is made in English between “feelings” and “emotions” where the first-named are more “feelings”, and the last-named are more “emotions”. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that there is still significant disagreement as to where precisely one is to draw the distinction between “feelings” and “emotions” and what states apply to each term (Svendsen, 2009, p. 21 et seq.).

Several modern theorists argue that there may be a range of basic, innate emotions. So does the social anthropologist Paul Ekman, who suggests that there is a collection of basic emotions, that is, those present in all societies and those not learned but inborn (Erdmann, 1992). Numerous researchers support such a concept, yet, there is controversy about the number of such basic emotions. Many different theorists propose more or less of the common emotions to be part of these basic instincts. Numbers range from only four up to eight – including such emotions as interest, anguish, and surprise – depending on how broad or narrow basic emotions are defined. However, in almost all of these theories, fear is described as one of these basic emotions (LeDoux, 2005, p. 113). Furthermore, most concepts also include anger, joy, disgust, and surprise, but there is no final agreement.

Most basic emotions theorists assume that there are also non-basic emotions that are the result of blends (or mixes) of the more basic ones. Psychologist Robert Plutchik, for this purpose, has established an emotional circle (Figure 1), similar to a color circle where the combining of primary colors results in new ones.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1. First order dyads formed by combination of neighboring pairs of emotions. Adapted from "A psychoevolutionary theory of emotions," by R. Plutchik, 1982, Social Science Information, 21 (4-5), p. 540.

Every basic emotion occupies a position on the circle. Blends of two basic emotions are called dyads. Blends involving neighboring (adjacent) emotions in a circle are dyads of the first order, blends involving emotions divided by another emotion are dyads of the second-order, and so forth. Love, in this scheme, is a dyad of first-order arising from the combination of joy and acceptance (neighboring basic emotions), while guilt is a dyad of second-order containing joy and fear (separated by acceptance). The further away two basic emotions, the less likely they are to merge. And when two distant emotions merge, conflicts are usual. Fear and surprise are neighboring and readily blend into alarm, but acceptance separates joy and fear, and their fusion is imperfect — the conflict that occurs is the source of guilt (Plutchik, 1982, p. 534 et seq.). Mixing simple emotions into emotions of the higher-order is usually considered a cognitive process. Most, if not all, of the biologically basic emotions, are shared with lower species, whereas the derived or non-basic emotions appear to be more distinctly human according to basic emotions theorists. As the emotions derived are created by cognitive operations, they may only be the same if two animals have the same cognitive ability. And since human beings are thought to differ most noticeably from other mammals in the field of cognition, non-basic, cognitively created emotions are more likely to vary between humans and other species than the basic emotions (LeDoux, 2005, p. 114). For example, contempt, remorse, and optimism could be uniquely human emotions. However, if we may conclude that there is such a collection of basic emotions, we did not come any closer to an understanding of them, since in different cultural settings these emotions can be articulated in very different ways. Cultural expectations appear important in deciding when and to what degree emotions are conveyed. As mentioned above, emotions are often considered to be solely inward, accessible only by a form of introspection. Nevertheless, they are not just abstract entities but also behaviors, acts, and expressions recognizable from and reflecting on the outside. For several (basic) emotions are characterized by common facial expressions that are similar across various cultures. They are believed to represent intrinsic, patterned reactions regulated by hardwired brain mechanisms (LeDoux, 2005, p. 112 et seq.).

This occurs in gestures and facial expressions. Emotions may be described as a way to be present in the world, a means to get a grasp on it and to act within it. Provided that emotions cannot be separated from emotional gestures, and the latter generally differ quite a bit from culture to culture, it seems that emotions are linked to culture (Svendsen, 2009, p. 22).

Some emotions are very similar in the way they express themselves physiologically. During studies where people were asked to recognize the emotions of other individuals from photos, most participants were able to recognize joyful, sad, and angry faces while far fewer were able to identify fearful faces that were frequently associated with anger, suspicion, or surprise (Bourke, 2014, p. 19). These emotions are usually relatively different when viewed individually, but it must be acknowledged that anger, for instance, is thought to include elements of fear. In emotions, it is exceedingly difficult to specifically differentiate between biological, physiological, and social dimensions. While emotions certainly have biological origins, it seems that they are formed by human interactions and social expectations as well. Thus, emotions have evolutionary, social, and personal roots, and we must take all three into account if we want to understand them. They are not just natural but also social constructs. The standards for possessing and expressing a given emotion when it is necessary, differ from culture to culture — and even with social standing. Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen argues that this does not only apply to the way people express emotions but also to how they perceive them. Whether we are scared, and how deeply, depends on our world views, what threatening forces are in it, and what chances we have to defend ourselves from them. The subjective awareness and understanding are not independent of the social context within which they exist (Svendsen, 2009, p. 24). The high impact of education –within a certain social and cultural framework– on emotions can be experienced when children learn to ignore their innate instinct for danger, e.g. when they naturally cross the road in favor of green light — roads which were considered life-threatening a moment ago.

Another way in trying to understand emotions is to focus on biochemical reactions. However, it is hard to biochemically differentiate between fear and many other emotions – for example, fear and anger have very similar biochemical constituents. Moreover, two individuals might be in the same physical state but have dissimilar emotional states, or they may be in the same emotional state but have distinct physical states. Besides, variations of the same basic emotion may have different physical correlations in the same person at different times (Svendsen, 2009, pp. 24-25). This approach will be discussed in more depth concerning fear later in this chapter.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who studies emotions as brain activities, argues that “emotion” does not apply to anything that the mind or brain actually does. Psychologists often divide the mind into practical parts such as perception, memory, and emotion. They help structure information in general study areas but do not apply to real features. “Emotion” is nothing more than a term, a simple way of thinking about brain facets. The brain has no system devoted to perception. The word “perception” generally describes what happens in a set of specific neural systems — with our visual, auditory, and olfactory systems, we see, hear, and smell the world. Each system developed to inform about the various problems faced by animals (including humans). The mechanism that we use to protect against threats is different from the one that we use in reproduction, and the emotions that arise from triggering these mechanisms –fear and sexual satisfaction– have no shared roots. Through several stages of evolutionary history, brain mechanisms that produce emotional activity were strongly conserved. To remain alive in the world, all animals must comply with certain requirements and fulfill their evolutionary obligation to transfer their genes to their progeny. At a bare minimum they to get food and shelter, to defend themselves from physical harm, and to reproduce. This refers to insects and worms as well as to mice and humans. Characteristics, which were beneficial for the survival of a species in a given environment, have become the defining features of the species in the long term. The distinctive characteristics of modern animals emerged in the same way as they contributed to the reproduction of distant ancestors (LeDoux, 2005, p. 108 et seq.). In the general class of innate emotions, Darwin suggested that some would have older evolutionary histories than others. He observed that our early ancestors were showing fear and anger just as much as they are today in humans. “It is a curious, though perhaps an idle speculation, how early in the long line of our progenitors the various expressive movements, now exhibited by man, were successively acquired”, he claims in his work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”. Nevertheless, Darwin assumed that suffering as a result of depression or anxiety was closer to human nature (Darwin, 1872, p. 361 et seq.).

Most of the emotional reactions are produced unconsciously which supports Sigmund Freud’s definition of consciousness as the tip of the cognitive iceberg (Freud, 2005). For example, feelings of fear arise as part of the overall reaction to danger and are no more or less important than physical reactions, such as shaking, fleeing, sweating, etc. Hence, LeDoux’s studies address the system that first detects the danger, rather than the conscious state of fear or the associated reactions. Fearful thoughts and trembling limbs are all symptoms triggered by this system’s operation, which works unconsciously — literally before a human actually realizes the danger. The system that senses danger is the underlying function of fear and controls accompanying behavioral, physiological, and cognitive representations as surface reactions. Consciousness states occur as soon as the system responsible for awareness becomes aware of the activity taking place in the unconscious.

Emotions easily bump banal events out of consciousness, but no emotional occurrences (like thoughts) can displace emotions from the mental spotlight — as usually, it is not enough to just want anxiety to go away (LeDoux, 2005, p. 118 et seq.). One cannot control emotions just like that. We can manipulate our emotions more subtly, for example, by putting ourselves in a position where a certain emotion usually occurs. And we can probably work on and shape our emotional life. It is obvious, though, that our feelings are not always in line with our will.

Emotions allow access to oneself and the outside world, but precisely because emotions can open up such perspectives, they also seem to have a concealing effect and thus give an incomplete perception of both one’s innate feelings and the world as a whole (Svendsen, 2009, p. 42). Existential philosopher and phenomenologist Martin Heidegger emphasized this concealing effect of fear:

“We become afraid in the face of this or that particular being that threatens us in this or that particular respect. […]. Because fear possesses this trait [...] he who fears and is afraid is captive to the mood in which he finds himself. Striving to rescue himself from this particular thing, he becomes unsure of everything else and completely loses his head.” (Heidegger & Krell, 1993, pp. 100-101)

Since the basic points and hypotheses about emotions are generally covered and clarified now, we can go into more depth. Heidegger’s quote makes a good transition from the general explanation of what emotions are to the main question of this chapter: “What is fear?”

Excerpt out of 83 pages


A Culture of Fear. The Influence of Fear and Anxiety on our Economic Thinking and Acting
Munich University of Applied Sciences  (Fakultät für Betriebswirtschaftslehre)
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Behavioral Economics, Fear, Anxiety, Economy, Culture, Culture of Fear, Politics of Fear, Corona, Lockdown, Covid-19, Business psychology, Economy of Fear, Bachelorarbeit, Wirtschaft, Wirtschaftspsychologie, Emotionen, Angst, Kultur, Philosophie, Soziologie
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Dominik Stojkovic (Author), 2020, A Culture of Fear. The Influence of Fear and Anxiety on our Economic Thinking and Acting, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/978863


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