Yesterday saw the release of a report from the Mental Health Foundation, that claims that we Brits are feeling a whole lot more anxious and fearful than we used to. The Guardian reported it with:
A growing culture of fear triggered by widespread misconceptions about the risk posed by threats such as crime and terrorism is exacerbating the economic downturn and hindering recovery, according to research published today.
It’s hard to see where the evidence for this is, either in the report or the MHF’s webpages about the report.
First, the misconceptions. The report says:
‘We are fearful for our children’s safety, and yet the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger are extremely small (a little more than 1 in 200,000 per year). The likelihood of being a victim of terrorism – another common fear – is also miniscule (although 60% of people cite it as a reason for increased fear)’ (MHF, 27)
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to fear an unlikely event while knowing how unlikely it is. We don’t find out anything new here about ‘misconceptions’ of risk. More importantly, it’s perfectly normal that crime and terrorism should be a reason for increased fear. If someone was previously ignorant of such issues (perhaps they were a child, didn’t read, or were just not looking) and then became aware of them their impact on fear should increase. I’m currently not scared of ghosts/UFOs/jedi, but if I became aware of their threat then they would be a reason to be anxious. I might forget about some other fears, though, making me no more anxious than I was before.
Indeed, without any good longitudinal data it’s hard to know if we are becoming more anxious anyway. There’s no comparison to previous findings so we don’t know if similar numbers were anxious in the past. The report does tell us that slightly more people are being diagnosed with anxiety disorders, but this could be because of better diagnosis, or a culture in which people are more likely to seek help than keep their problems to themselves.
As with many issues, a vast tranche of people belief that everyone else is getting more worried, while they themselves are not. And as with much research, asking questions like:
How strongly do you agree with the following statement?
I get frightened or anxious these days more often than I used to
Strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree
seems to me to be a recipe for bad sociology. What does not agreeing or disagreeing with this actually mean? If one ‘strongly disagrees’ does this mean being less anxious these days? Do people get more anxious as they get older anyway? Does anyone remember how anxious they used to be?
Finally, the assertion that the ‘culture of fear’ is stopping economic recovery is laughable. Going back to Roosevelt the MHF say:
fear is partly driving the economic crisis because the emotion is over-riding logical thinking. Individuals and institutions – keen to protect themselves – are now too afraid to lend, spend and invest, despite the fact that these actions could assist in ending the recession.
It’s not the ‘culture of fear’ of terrorists and paedophiles that causes this. It’s the fear that putting your money into housing or shares means losing some of it if the market goes down. This has always been the case, and why we have booms and busts. These booms and busts occured long before we had our current ‘culture of fear’. And the worst thing about this analysis is that it blames us for problems caused largely by politicians, traders and bankers. Even though governments allowed the economic system to become evermore unstable, it’s the average Joe who’s holding recovery back because he wants to put his money away for a rainy day instead of buying more consumer goods he might not afford if he gets made redundant.