26 June, 2022


Voters Be Warned: Fearmongers Are At Work

By W A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

If you want people to love you, don’t inflict fear in them

The Greek historian Plutarch writing in about the 2nd century CE on the characters of important men in history up to his day in a book titled ‘The Parallel Lives’ had devoted Part 6 of Volume VII for Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian prince who invaded India in the 4th century BCE. Plutarch describes a verbal skirmish which the young warrior had with ten sages who had lived around the seat of higher learning at that time, Taxila. The youthful emperor, having been impressed by their skilful resolution of numerous riddles thrown at the first five of them, had asked the sixth one an important question: ‘how can one make oneself loved and respected?’. The sage to whom this question was directed had a straight answer to it: ‘if one has immense powers, but does not inflict fear in others, then, one is loved and respected’. This answer paraphrases one of the fundamental tenets of the behaviour of species: ‘The fear is painful and reduces pleasure. The removal of fear adds to happiness and is desired by everybody’.

The sagacious advice is relevant to politicians today

This answer is specifically guiding to those in power: Do not use your power to frighten others, mentally, verbally or physically. All you will earn will be ‘not love or respect but hate or dislike’. Ironically, it is this cursed fear that is being used by politicians today. They concoct fearmongering stories to frighten voters into obedience, on one side, and persuade them not to vote for their political rivals, on the other. The is fearmongering list is long. But some salient instances include those stories against USA, China, India, the West, minorities or other religious groups. The politicians have been able to play this game because of one defect in the people. That is, the majority of them have lost rational thinking and, instead, embraced the faith that fosters emotions, prejudices or biases. 

Rational Man

Economists have termed the pleasure which a person gets out of a desirable experience as ‘utility’. In the opposite, the pain out of an undesirable experience has been called ‘disutility’. A person’s action, if he is rational or, in other words, not influenced by emotions, prejudices or biases, is always guided by his desire to avoid disutility and seek for utility. Since fear brings disutility to a person, he would do anything to avoid fear. Similarly, if he is already inflicted with fear, any promise of eliminating fear would be instantly embraced by him. 

Era of Fear

Sociologists have termed the current era as an ‘era of fear’. Given the society’s loud expression of fear of meeting with catastrophe from almost everything currently being experienced, climatic change, globalisation, terrorism, genetically modified food, polythene and many more, the rationale for this classification is understandable. However, it prejudges that fear is a novel experience and the degree and extent of fear tend to rise as time passes, for otherwise, the current era cannot be singularly called the era of fear. It, therefore, does not depict the actual situation. Human beings, throughout their existence on the planet, whether as hunter-gatherers or cave-dwellers or civilised cohabiters, have always been living in fear of what they could not understand: the fear of the unknown. If the unknown cannot be learnt, then, it spawns risk. Hence, the fear of the unknown emanates from the fear of risk and that human mental state has been a common feature in all the eras.

Bounded rationality

Fear is, therefore, irrational and does not tally with the concept of the rational man. But rationality in human beings is bounded by three ‘lacks’ as depicted by the Nobel laureate Herbert A Simon in 1957 which he called ‘bounded rationality’. He said that even if man wants to be rational, he cannot be rational because he is constrained by lack of all the information to make a judgment, lack of time to analyse that information and when the first two are present, the lack of brain power to do so. Hence, they make just satisfactory choices – in Simon’s terminology, be satisficers – instead of making the best choice. This weakness of man is fully capitalised by politicians to their advantage. 

The Birth of Behavioural Economics

How did the economists, then, manage to accommodate an irrational emotion like fear in their analysis which has long been based on the assumption of the rational man? This happened when the frontiers of economics were expanded in early 1970s by drawing on the findings of behavioural sciences like psychology. According to these findings, the behaviour of man was completely different from the objective rationality which economists had presumed to prevail when man is confronted with making choices. Thus, economists of new era began to look at the economic man as a maximiser of pleasure based on the instinctively guided emotions with which he is basically made of. Research into human behaviour by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist by profession, but winner of Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, helped economists to develop a new branch in economics called ‘behavioural economics’ later. Fear is analysed by economists under this new branch.

Economists do not propose remedies for the desirable or undesirable consequences of fear. They analyse the sources of fear, behaviour of those who take advantage of fear in people or its free riders and how the market distortions arising from its undesirable consequences require modifications to the mainstream economic theory.

Heart vs. Head

Psychologists had long found two divisions of the functioning of the brain, the emotional side and the rational side. In popular parlance, the emotional side was known as ‘heart’ and the rational side as ‘head’. The rational economic man on whom the economists built their theories came from this rational side of the brain. He was expected to draw on his past knowledge objectively, analyse all the information available and make choices by taking into account all the costs and benefits of his actions. The emotional man, on the other hand, is guided by his heart. Accordingly, he will make choices on the basis of fear and its consequential offspring, prejudices and biases. The two sides of the brain are in total conflict with each other. As such, it is essential for the rational side of the brain to dominate the emotional side, if the traditional economists are to establish the validity of their theories. But the psychologists like Daniel Kahneman found evidence to the contrary. In the majority of men and women, irrespective of age, educational level or social status, the emotional side was dominant and, hence, the choices they made were faulty and contrary to the predictions made by the mainstream economic theory.

Fear is one such disturbing element that mars the rational thinking of many and leads to faulty choices.

If the majority of people are driven by emotional elements like fear, then, there are many who stand to gain by rousing fear in people. The list is long, but some prominent gainers are marketers, media men, certain religion-preachers, social activists and politicians. They maximise their gains by arousing fearful emotions of one type or another in their target groups.

Rational Knowledge and Irrational Knowledge

In their day to day life, people are bombarded with statistics, information and news of various types of catastrophe without substance or authenticity. A rationally thinking person would very quickly dismiss them as baseless. He would draw on the store of his knowledge, evaluate the plausibility of the happening and rationally decide to reject the information or the statistics presented to him. But this process, known as acquiring ‘rational knowledge’, is difficult, time consuming and costly. Therefore, not many would venture into arming themselves with such costly knowledge. Man has always been a lover of cheap ‘instant products’ and ‘emotions’ come both cheaply and instantly.

The best example is the case of emotionally wired people. They choose to remain irrationally ignorant of the true facts, even when opportunities are afforded to them to acquire rational knowledge.  

Such emotionally wired persons would, therefore, take the easy path and treat the bombarded information differently. They would find the news or the statistics confirming what they already hold as true. They would not take trouble to verify their accuracy or authenticity and accept them as true without probing into them.

Exploiters of Fears and Emotions

This lazy approach which emotionally wired people adopt when making judgments is sweet music to those who scheme to gain out of their irrational and emotion-driven ignorance.

The modus operandi adopted by them is the same: first, they arouse fear in people and, then, offer them with remedy to get out of fear. 

Examine how marketers do it in catching the vulnerable people into their trap.

If women are fearful of getting old, the marketers would first show them how they would lose everything due to old age and, then, project their product as one that helps them to stay young forever. If young girls are worried about their dark complexion, the marketers would first add to their agony by showing how they lose job prospects or marriage proposals because they are not of fair complexion. Then, they would offer a product that would guarantee a fair skin. If men are unduly concerned about grey and falling hair, those concerns are first confirmed by the marketers by throwing them into encounters in which their male ego is hurt incurably. Then, a product, described as something to restore their hair line and solve all their problems, would be offered to them. In this manner, marketers would surreptitiously and shrewdly exploit every fear, prejudice and bias which people harbour in them and gain out of such fears.

Politicians are exploiters of fears of people

Politicians are not a better lot when it comes to exploiting fears of people for their gain. They would rouse the already teeming fears about terrorism, gloomy economic conditions, globalisation, and privatisation, selling of water to multinational companies, loss of job opportunities due to arrangements with IMF or World Bank and so on to their advantage. They also fuel irrational fancies like nationalism and patriotism to drive emotionally wired people to their camps. The best example used in the present election campaigns is the fear of MCC Compact grant offered to Sri Lanka by the US government.  

So, everyone uses the fear in others to gain an advantage for them. This is not a new phenomenon and there is evidence that it was practiced even in the past. Kautilya, the third century BCE Indian economist who wrote the economic text Arthashartra, advised the king on an ingenious way of filling the depleted state treasury. He asked the king to: ‘Use the superstitious fears of ignorant people to collect additional revenue to the Treasury’ 

So, shrewd politicians would first rouse fear in people in the same way as marketers would do. They would bombard people with news addressed to the emotional side of the brain. Once the target group is sufficiently alarmed and domiciled, they would offer the solution to rid that fear. This has been the art employed by politicians of every country and every generation for amassing the votes of gullible voters.

Herd Behaviour 

Anyone bent on exploiting emotions of people for their gain could easily do so due to the ‘herd behaviour’ of people like animals. Psychologists who conducted experiments into this area as far back as 1953 found that the majority of people tends to accept the falsehood as true even when they know personally that it is false, if others continue to say that it is true. So, laying a trap to capture people is easy: get as many as possible to chorus the falsehood repeatedly and then all of them voluntarily fall into your pocket!

Importance of Allowing head to Rule

The way to avoid being victimised by deliberately planned fear or emotion-rousing schemes is to develop one’s rational mind. To do so, one should first get rid of fear that is embedded in the emotional side of his brain. It comes from long learning, understanding and developing a probing mind. Or it may come from tenaciously held cultural traits as demonstrated by Dhammapala Jataka. In this Jataka Story, a father could not be fooled by showing him the bones of a dead animal as the bones of his dead son. ‘In our clan, people do not die young. Hence, this cannot be my son’s bones’ the rationally wired father tells the shocked demonstrator. As a result of father’s rational stand, the cunning demonstrator finally had to bring out the son from the hiding place and present him to the father. 

The Buddha in the Dhajagga Sutta advised the Bhikkhus practising meditation in the forests to rid them of fear by being neutral. That is, they should shed fear in them by being non-greedy, non-hating and non-delusional. To attain that quality, they should give up the two contrasts embodied in greed and generosity, hate and love and knowledge and ignorance and be in the neutral plane.

But developing rational men and women is costly. Hence, societies are full of irrationally ignorant people driven by emotions like fear and its offspring, prejudices and biases. They make choices that are different from the choices made by rational people. As such, economic theories which are based on the rational behaviour of people have been built on an illusion. 

So, what should voters do at this election? They should first of all rid themselves of fears in them – fear of foreigners, markets, people – and cultivate the habit of exploring, probing and critically assessing the information that is bombarded to them by interested parties. They would be free and sovereign only if they succeed in doing so.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 3

    The most conspicuous attempt to create fear is the fear of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. How many articles a week Colombo Telegraph carries for this purpose?
    Ironically it has worked for his advantage.


    • 4

      The author is a srilankan citizen, not an american citizen. Gotabaya’s white van, Oil Ghosts, abduction and murder of journalists and surundees are real and truth. Until justice is given to the victims, fight against criminals continue.

      • 0

        Good luck.


  • 7

    Excellant work. Fear is real among minorities, other religions and rational and ordinary people.In contrast over joy among fundamentalists, war mongers, corruptors, and criminals. When two extreme forces react with each other the outcome is outrageous and disastarous and interference by outsiders is unavoidable and unresistable.

  • 1

    Fear is associated with leadership today because if the element of fear is taken out, it is considered as weakness. Many years ago, I was taught that leadership was, simply defined, as getting others to follow willingly but I think, in today’s context, leadership has been redefined.

    My friends in SL are happy with a military style govt., convinced as the only way to maintain law & order, as well as, accountability & preventing corruption & lethargy, after the lassiz faire style of a laid back PM & the bungling of an inept & ignorant President of the previous regime. Fear, emotional or physical, is inbuilt in leadership today. Therefore, citizens (in SL) are expected to follow under a ‘strong’ leader of the country who knows best.

  • 4

    Just now I read a news item in which GL Peries told that for economic development they need a strong government. For a strong government the country also need a strong parliament. In other words you also need a strong oppossition. Parliament is a place where you debate the policies, investments, and the laws needed to implement those policies. We don’t need a parliament which raises their hand to say “Yes” to everything that is right or wrong. You don’t need a two third majority to get through the policies but if you want to make any changes to the constitution only you need a two third majority. The 19th amendment was made through in the parliament by two major political parties and with the support of minority political parties. So there is no necessity to change the constitution. In this election people should make sure that we need a strong parliament with strong oppossition to stop any one violating the rule of law and justice to all.

    • 0

      How is that GLP going to get strong? Going to රා බොන්න? How old is he? Does he read superman comic books? Does he watch Bruce Lee movie. If he comes to know the voice on the other side of the phone is Old King, GLP always dropped the phone. How is GLP going to get strong?

  • 2

    Ajith: I appreciate what you said in your comment. Having said that, I know all those narrations have become “Text Book” theories in Sri Lanka Parliament. For example, if any MP of the “Ruling” political party or the Leadership says “NO” to any proposal brought before the House, he/she will face “Disciplinary” action and would even be “expelled” from the party. That was what happened in the “Bond Scam” debate. Then on the other hand, if any Opposition party wants to “Win” in a major move, such as voting at a “Budget” debate, all that has to be done is to look for the “NO” MPs and “BUY” them on “BIDS”. This “Method” of circumventing the value systems of Parliamentary Democracy has been proven in Sri Lanka.

    • 0

      In our Democracy everyone of us are free to express our opinion on any issue EXCEPT our representatives.
      Parliamentary debates are EXACTLY similar to school debates where you argue for the ASSIGNED side of a topic to demonstrate oratory – nothing do with his or her own opinion.
      Can someone explain me why do they take a vote in the Parliament – isn’t if sufficient to take a vote from party leaders?
      When they say “give us 2/3 to change the Constitution” doesn’t it mean that those idiots on your ballot paper are legally bound to vote for whatever shit we are going to produce to govern the country. ( When Yahapalana took over in 2015 Jayampathy Wickramaratne declared that we are going to change the Constitution EVEN BEFORE WRITING a word and after sometime when others said these guys are going to go Federal he said how the hell you say so we haven’t even written a word yet! The obvious assumption is MPs are mere pawns)
      If our representatives could vote confidentially the 18th amendment to prolong the Presidency would never have seen the light of day.


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