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Fear
 
By
Phil Barker


July 2003
 
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What Is Fear?

Fear is "an unpleasant and often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger."[1] Fear is completely natural and helps people to recognize and respond to dangerous situations and threats. However, healthy fear -- or fear which has a protective function -- can evolve into unhealthy or pathological fear, which can lead to exaggerated and violent behavior.


"The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear. It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there. Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear." -- James F. Mattil

Dr. Ivan Kos lays out several different stages of fear. The first is real fear, or fear based on a real situation. If someone or something hurts you, you have a reason to fear it in the future. Second is realistic, or possible fear. This is fear based in reality that causes a person to avoid a threat in the first place (i.e. waiting to cross a busy road for safety reasons). Next, exaggerated or emotional fear deals with an individual "recalling past fears or occurrences and injecting them into a current situation."[2] This type of fear is particularly relevant to conflict. Emotional fear affects the way people handle conflictual situations.

Causes of Fear

Conflict is often driven by unfulfilled needs and the fears related to these needs. The most common fear in intractable conflict is the fear of losing one's identity and/or security. Individuals and groups identify themselves in certain ways (based on culture, language, race, religion, etc.) and threats to those identities arouse very real fears -- fears of extinction, fears of the future, fears of oppression, etc.

For many people, the world is changing rapidly and their lives are being altered as a result. For some religious people, this change leads to the fear that young people will abandon the Church or Mosque, that the media will become more important and influential in the lives of their children, and that they are losing control of their own future. These threats to identity result in fear.[3]

Similarly, in many ethnic conflicts, a history of "humiliation, oppression, victimhood, feelings of inferiority, persecution of one's group, and other kinds of discrimination" lead to a fear of similar wrongdoing in the future.[4] These historical memories shape how groups and people see each other. As a result, historical violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, and Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland affects how these groups look at one another and often leads to fear of one another. Group fears often translate into individual fears, as group extinction is often associated with individual extinction.

These examples illustrate the important role that history plays in the development of fear. Memories of past injustices lead individuals to anticipate future oppression or violence with a sense of anxiety and dread.

Why Fear Matters


Additional insights into fear are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Fear is a very important factor in intractable conflict. Emotions like fear can often cause extreme and seemingly irrational behavior in people, which can result in escalating conflict. According to James F. Mattil, the Managing Editor of Flashpoints: Guide to World Conflict, "The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear. It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there. Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear."[5]

People are social in nature, with shared values, religion, tradition, language, etc. Whenever the basic characteristics that tie a group together are threatened, the group will fear for its survival. As a result, the group will also attempt to get rid of the threat, sometimes through distorted or violent means.

History plays an important role in this process. Historical experiences shape how groups view threats. If a group has been hurt or wounded in the past, it affects their outlook today. For example, historical tensions and wrongdoing affect the way Israelis and Palestinians see each other today. Oftentimes, history is exaggerated -- meaning one group is portrayed as extremely heroic and another group portrayed as barbarian or inhuman. This in turn leads to more mistreatment, as it is easier to abuse or hurt a group that has been dehumanized. A cycle develops--someone is hurt, resulting in fear and the demonization of the person or group that hurt them. This, in turn, makes it easier for future wrongdoing to occur.

It is also important to note the impact that elites, or leaders, have on fear and conflict. Oftentimes, leaders use fear to their political advantage. Leaders need support from those they lead, and one way to gain this support is by playing on the fears of the people. Leaders in Northern Ireland can use the fear of either the Protestants or the Catholics to their own political advantage. Many have asserted that George Bush used the fear of another 9-11 to support the second U.S. war in Iraq. Leaders can even intentionally deepen these fears for their own purposes. Doing so can aggravate the already existing fears and lead to future difficulties.[6]

Dealing with Fear

Individuals: There are many ways of approaching fear in the context of conflict. However, since fear is such a personal issue, most approaches focus on the individual. There are various ways to deal with your own fear, including

  • becoming aware of it,
  • identifying the ways you express fear
  • recognizing the situations which trigger fear, and
  • using behavioral techniques to reduce fear and stress.[7]

In order to overcome fears, individuals and groups must first come to terms with their own fears and understand just how destructive they can be. However, it is equally important to be aware of others' fears. Being aware of other people's fear allows you to deal with it appropriately. One of the most effective ways of handling the fear of others is through empathy, or seeing things from the other person's perspective. Once one does that, one can recognize actions of one's own that might be unnecessarily causing fear on the other side. By toning down one's language, or clarifying one's interests and needs, it is possible to dispel unwarranted fears, thereby helping the other side feel more secure. Empathy is also important in any attempt at reconciliation or mediation because it helps to foster a positive interaction between people.[8] It is also important to share your own fears so that others can empathize with you in return, and alter their behavior in ways that will lessen that fear as well.


"We have nothing to fear but fear itself." -- Franklin Roosevelt 1933, First Inaugural Address

Officials: Public support is essential for political leaders. One way leaders can gain this support is by addressing, playing off of, or even causing the fears of his or her people. As a result, leaders can play an important role in the creation and/or calming of fears, particularly in ethnic or inter-group conflicts. It is important that leaders are aware of the consequences of using fear as a motivational tool. Because fear is such a powerful emotion, leaders must be extremely cautious about playing on the fears of people. The former Yugoslavia is a perfect example of how the fears of the people can be used by leaders for power. Serb leaders often played on Serb fears in order to strengthen their power and to push people to do things they might otherwise have refused to do.[9] Contrast this with the very famous quote of Franklin Roosevelt: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." This is an overstatement...fear can be real and justified, but it is far too dangerous to exploit for other aims.

Third Parties: Mediators and third parties can play an important part in helping people to overcome their fears. By understanding the ways in which fear can create and escalate conflict, third parties can address these issues in a constructive manner. One way this can be accomplished is by assuring that people on both sides of a conflict feel that their individual needs and fears are being addressed. Oftentimes this is done through no-fault discussions, wherein people are not allowed to discuss who is wrong in a situation, but only ways in which they may move toward a peaceful resolution. Neither side should have to sacrifice in areas that they consider to be an important need or fear. Solutions must always "satisfy fundamental needs and allay deepest fears."[10]

It is also important to remember that an issue such as identity and the fears associated with it are not zero-sum. In other words, the calming of one group's fear does not necessarily mean that another group has more reason to fear. Usually quite the opposite is true. The more secure one group feels, the less they feel a need to attack other groups. Thus security can actually be a win-win or positive sum game: the more one side has, the more the other side has too. This is true from the bully on the playground...who is usually an insecure child, to the bully in the international system.

Through empathy and understanding, groups in conflict can learn about the fears and needs of others and, in the process, overcome their own fears as well.


[1] Merriam-Webster Online [book on-line] (accessed 7 March 2003); available from http://www.webster.com; Internet.

[2] Paul Wahrhaftig, Belgrade Combating Fear Project [article on-line] (accessed 11 March 2003); available from http://www.conflictres.org/vol181/belgrade.html; Internet.

[3] James F. Mattil, What in the Name of God?: Fundamentalism, Fear & Terrorism [article on-line] (accessed 7 March 2003); available from http://www.flashpoints.info/issue-briefings/Analysis%20&%20Commentary/Analysis-Religion-main.htm ; Internet.

[4] Steve Utterwulghe, Rwanda's Protracted Social Conflict: Considering the Subjective Perspective in Conflict Resolution Strategies [article on-line] (accessed 7 March 2003); available from http://www.trinstitute.org/ojpcr/2-3utter.htm; Internet.

[5] James F. Mattil, What in the Name of God?: Fundamentalism, Fear & Terrorism [article on-line] (accessed 7 March 2003); available from http://www.flashpoints.info/issue-briefings/Analysis%20&%20Commentary/Analysis-Religion-main.htm ; Internet.

[6] Herbert Kelman, "Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict," in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 197.

[7] **Endnote missing (will add later).

[8] Herbert Kelman, "Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict," in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 199.

[9] Anthony Oberschall, The manipulation of ethnicity: from ethnic cooperation to violence and war in Yugoslavia [article on-line] (accessed 13 March 2003); available from http://www.unc.edu/courses/2002fall/soci/326/039/manipulation-of-ethnicity.pdf; Internet.

[10] Herbert Kelman, "Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict," in Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997), 197.


Use the following to cite this article:
Barker, Phil. "Fear." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/fear>.

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