The Blood-Boiling Trap


Guy Burgess



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog



by Guy Burgess

August, 2020

We are, individually and collectively, falling into a complex series of mutually-reinforcing traps that are dramatically complicating efforts to deal with the COVID-19, racism and a wide range of other serious social problems. These traps, like all traps, are deceptive and easy to fall into without really realizing that you've done so. You may not even realize that there is a much more desirable world outside the traps that you could be living in if only you had been smart enough to avoid the trap in the first place (or climb out once you fall in). The thing about traps is that they catch people who are not aware of the danger. Once you see the trap, it is generally relatively easy to avoid becoming yet another victim.

In this essay, I would like to call attention to a complex series of interrelated problems that I call the "blood-boiling trap."[1]  It arises when we pay excessive amounts of attention to things that make us so angry that our "blood boils." Before I go any further, however, let me emphasize that there are, in fact, lots of things that do and should make you angry enough to provoke a strong defensive response. The problem is that, in the rush to fight back against these bad things, we fail to recognize associated good things and take the steps needed to preserve and protect those things.

The "blood-boiling trap"  arises when we pay excessive amounts of attention to things that make us so angry that our "blood boils," and, in the rush to fight back against these bad things, we fail to recognize associated good things and take the steps needed to preserve and protect those good things.

Some of the problem is attributable to an understandable cognitive bias that has deep evolutionary roots. All animals have long recognized that one of the principal keys to survival is the prompt identification of potential threats and the ability to immediately take evasive action. To put it simply, the fear part of the brain is wired ahead of the hope part of the brain. In a simple environment, this is quite adaptive, since the threats that you most have to worry about are direct physical threats. In complex social environments, however, the threats we face are deeply immersed in a very large and complex web of social relationships, Here the things that you one should worry about are far removed from one's direct personal experience and require extensive communication networks and complex thought processes to evaluate sensibly.  Unfortunately, our instincts are not set up to help us respond to these more cerebral threats. It is the gut-level emotions of anger and fear that tend to be the biggest motivators.

Since fear is more motivating than hope, we have, essentially, an "arms race in fear mongering.

We also live in a very large and complex social environment in which we can't do all that many things by ourselves. To survive and thrive, we have to be able to successfully persuade others to support our efforts.  To do this, we have organized ourselves into a very large number of interest groups (our families, our jobs and professional associations, our religious groups, sports groups, neighborhood groups, political groups etc.) – groups which are constantly clamoring and competing for attention and support.  Some of these groups have figured out that making people afraid is a great way to get attention and to motivate them people to be supportive. In fact, instilling fear is often much more effective than trying to convince people to help you pursue some sort of more positive but abstract ideal.This has resulted in what amounts to an "arms race" in which the key to gaining support is convincing others that your cause is the scariest and, therefore, deserving of the top spot on one's priority list.  

A related dynamic afflicts the media. Since essentially all publishers now track exactly how many people read/listen/watch each post and for how long, it's easy for them to see who is getting the most attention (and, therefore, drawing the most ad revenue). Not surprisingly, writers have figured out that it's the stories that paint the scariest and most outrageous picture that get the most attention.   So, those who write such stories flourish and those who don't fade into obscurity. 

We also now have a globalized mass media that, for each day's news, searches the planet for the most attention grabbing (outrageous) stories. These are then presented in the most attention-grabbing way possible. And, somehow stories about places where the system works and things aren't so scary never seem to get much attention. While the so-called tabloids and other less "respectable" news sources are certainly most blatant about this, you get something very similar in mainstream, respectable news sources and from respectable "think tanks" as well.  Part of this reflects the belief, on the part of people writing these stories, that times really are this terrible and that they must call people's attention to all of the problems.  But there are also many unscrupulous actors who have found a way to profit by fanning the flames of anger and fear.  

Our image of the world is artificially upsetting

All of this tends to alter the picture that the media presents about the world around us in ways that are increasingly upsetting. Since our direct experience of local, national, and international events is very limited, almost all of our information about the world comes from the media. That means our image of the world is artificially upsetting. 

This is also a positive feedback system which reinforces and intensifies itself. Writers are drawn into the same dynamics where the things that they read and on which they base their stories are skewed toward the most inflammatory materials and away from information about instances in which the system works.  This has resulted in the now-widespread levels of deep cynicism that describes the view that people have about the society in which they live. From a high of around 80% in 1965 trust in government to do the right thing always or most of the time has collapsed to around 20%.

This produces yet another perverse dynamic. People are becoming so disgusted by all of this the political fear and anger mongering that they conclude that the political system is so rigged that there is no point in participating (other than, perhaps, trying to overthrow it). As a result, very large numbers of people who have almost completely dropped out the democratic process.  (44% of the voting age population didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election and almost 90% didn't participate in the all-important primaries.)

We are now at the point where candidates no longer win elections by persuading undecided voters that their plans for solving the country's problems are wiser, more effective, and more equitable than the other candidate's. Rather, candidates now win elections by making the cynics so furious that they'll actually come out and vote in sufficient numbers to alter the outcome of the election. To do this, political campaigns and the supporting political media apparatus focuses even more sharply on demonizing the other side. While you can point to some differences in the style with which this is done (the establishment left might be a bit more polite), the underlying hostility and often hate is much the same.

Over time, escalation and arms race dynamics have progressively eroded taboo lines that used to protect us from the most extreme hate-mongering tactics.  It has also eroded "truth telling" norms as people figure out that they can gain a significant tactical advantage by taking liberties with the facts. This can be done by omitting relevant facts that might support the other side's argument, by deceptively presenting available information or through the outright fabrication of facts. 

Since political hyperbole is designed to achieve short-term objectives, little thought is given to the long-term consequences of making false statements.  But problem-solving efforts based on inaccurate analyses of the problem won't work. So we won't be able to solve any problems. 

This, combined with the need to be as alarming as possible, has resulted in a constant barrage of overwrought warnings about the gloom catastrophe that will follow the other party comes to power or their policies are implemented.  Since all of this hyperbole is designed to achieve short-term objectives, little thought is given to the long-term consequences of making statements that turn out not to be true. (Problem-solving efforts based on inaccurate analyses of the problem don't work.) 

These dynamics also tend to generate a "boy who cried wolf" effect where people become increasingly unmoved by terrible warnings. [2] We may now be facing a case in which a very real threat posed by COVID-19 may turn out to be much worse than it needed to be because so many people just quit believing in expert warnings. 

Once you see what the "fear-mongering arms race" is doing to us, it is easier to stop. The key is to help people realize that they have more to fear from fear mongering than from anything else. 

The good news is that there is a considerable amount of truth to the old saying – to be "forewarned is to be forearmed." Once you see what this is doing to us, it is easier to stop. The key is to help people realize that they have more to fear from fear mongering than anything else.  Maybe then, we can get back to more sensibly analyzing the threats that we face and the many, mutually-beneficial opportunities that we could take advantage of together.

There is also good reason to believe that we have reached something of a saturation point with all of the fear and hate-mongering. There is only so much fear voters can take before a politician with a genuinely hopeful message becomes really attractive.


[1] For those not familiar with this English-language idiom, making one's "blood boil" means making one extremely angry.

[2]  Also, for our non-native English speakers, the "boy who cried wolf" is a fable about a shepherd who cried out a warning about a wolf repeatedly when none was around, so people stopped paying attention to his warnings.  Then when he cried out "wolf!" when there was one approaching, no one paid attention and the wolf destroyed the whole flock of sheep, the moral being that no one believes a liar, even when he or she tells the truth.