the rise of fear since 1980

(Claremont, CA) An analysis of more than 5 million English-language books scanned by Google reveals a general decline in explicit discussions of emotions during the 20th century, except for a significant spike in fear (and rough synonyms of that word) after 1980. See “The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books” by Alberto Acerbi, Vasileios Lampos, Philip Garnett, R. Alexander Bentley (March 20, 2013).

One could raise several methodological questions–some of which the authors address effectively, and some of which linger for me: Are Google’s scanned books representative of all books? Are books representative of the culture in general? Was the relationship between books and the broader culture constant over the 20th century? And does a methodology that essentially depends on word searches capture the real meaning of books? (For instance, a book could be pervasively fearful without using the word “fear,” or any rough equivalent. It could even be marked by a false bravado.)

But let’s say that the finding is meaningful. It’s an interesting trend because the world did not grow evidently more frightening from 1980-2000. The Cold War ended; 9/11 was far off. Yet, at least in some respects, we became more frightened. For example, even as crime rates began to fall, middle-class American parents stopped letting their kids walk around alone in cities. News coverage changed because of shifts in the media marketplace;  rapes, fires, and murders pretty much took over the local TV.

Those are just anecdotal examples from disparate areas of life. But here’s a general hypothesis: provoking fear is an effective rhetorical technique. Fear draws attention and shuts down critical reasoning. It therefore sells news stories, policy proposals, and  candidates. In competitions for audiences or voters, strategists compete to be more frightening. Thus, as commercial advertising, political campaigning, state propaganda, and issue advocacy became more efficient and better funded in the late 20th century, fear was deployed with increasing effectiveness. The results are evident in our books.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.