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Kiel Institute Focus 36

January 27, 2017 

Making Fearful Citizens Less Fearful*

by Simon Bartke, Andreas Friedl, Felix Gelhaar, and Pia Stammer

Anyone expressing concern over the stream of refugees flowing into Europe, or who dares to sympathize with right-wing populist parties, is quickly labeled irrational, stupid, or xenophobic. Those who feel intellectually superior heap derision on them in social and traditional media. A new word has even been added to the German language in this context: “Angstbürger," literally “fearful citizen(s).” But this response could not be more mistaken, as the following discussion based on behavioral economics shows.

Have you ever tried to persuade someone who is afraid of flying just how unwarranted his or her fear actually is? A glance at air traffic statistics should be all it takes. The likelihood of dying in a plane crash in the United States or Europe is 1 in 29 million. By contrast, the probability of hitting the lottery jackpot is 1 in 15 million, i.e., roughly twice as high. The likelihood of having a fatal biking accident is 1 in 340,000. But aviophobia sufferers will probably find little comfort in these statistics and their fear will remain very real. Many fears cannot be justified rationally and thus cannot be overcome by rational arguments. Fear of foreigners is one such irrational fear.

If one looks at potential and actual supporters of right-wing populist parties, Facebook agitators, EU haters, or Trump supporters and asks where their hostility to foreigners comes from, it quickly becomes apparent that the reasons are seldom rational. The majority of Trump supporters, for instance, believe that foreign competition has had a detrimental effect on their financial circumstances, even though many traditional trades in the construction sector, for example, are unaffected by foreign competition. Or if one takes Germany as an example, there are on average more than twice as many foreigners per 1,000 residents in western Germany as there are in the eastern German states. Nonetheless, it is in the areas where the fewest foreigners live that right-wing political parties get the most votes. Since the anxieties of those who support these populist parties and movements are diffuse and mostly defy rational explanation, policymakers and large parts of the general public tend to dismiss them as unjustified, thereby condemning such individuals and their fears. Anyone who remains fearful of refugees despite being confronted with rational arguments must clearly be blind to reality, stupid or just plain xenophobic.

Fear is an age-old instinct. People have a natural tendency to prefer their own group, tribe, or clan and to be suspicious of newcomers. That still applies today. Behavioral experiments show that people display bias even over trivial things. Those with a passion for paintings by Paul Klee, for instance, prefer to remain among themselves and exclude people who prefer paintings by Kandinsky—and vice versa. This result is all the more surprising because it is very difficult for the average person to distinguish between the works of the two artists. Whether justified or not, fear and exclusion are part of our biology. But fear of the Other can have disastrous consequences for human coexistence when it tips over into aggression against minorities. So it makes sense to deal with the causes of these fears early on.

In psychotherapy, one way of treating anxiety disorders is through exposure therapy. An aviophobe, for example, is encouraged to overcome his fears just long enough to take a short-haul flight, then gradually flies longer distances based on that positive experience until he manages to get control of his phobia. Similarly, policymakers and society as a whole need to help the angry and resentful to face down their fears step by step, while making it clear that xenophobic and racist ideas cannot be tolerated. This can be achieved by encouraging direct contact with refugees, and in particular with former migrants who are now well integrated into society.

But it also means seeking dialogue with people who express an opposing view. Equally, the media, public figures, and the educational system have an important responsibility to emphasize the importance of tolerance and openness in a diverse society. A categorical refusal to engage in dialogue combined with personal attacks against fearful fellow citizens are counterproductive and only lead to greater isolation and radicalization. Obviously, one cannot expect that a single encounter will result in antipathy toward strangers being transformed into acceptance. But democracy must be able to tolerate and even seek active discourse with groups that hold different opinions, even if their views seem irrational, as long as they are committed to the existing constitutional order. For us as a society, it is essential that we remain engaged with fearful citizens. Statistics show just how fruitful this can be: the lowest levels of xenophobia are found in communities with a high level of immigrants.

It is also imperative that the media, policymakers, and social elites find better ways of dealing with anxious fellow citizens. Generalizations, vilification, and the wholesale dismissal of all supporters of populist right-wing parties and movements as an alien-hating mob merely help to build mental walls. Commentary and reporting of this sort is all too prevalent in social and traditional media and is no more constructive than demonizing all refugees and asylum seekers or talking about "sex-crazed Syrians." Nor is it likely to encourage right-wing populist voters to forgo protest and regain trust in the political system. Instead of allowing emotions and irrationality to gain the upper hand, it is precisely those unswayed by fear who should be helping to defuse the situation and seeking dialogue.

(Revised version of an op ed in the online magazine Vice of January 11, 2017, titled “Wie wir Angstbürger weniger ängstlich machen“)

This work was supported by the Franceschi Young Professional Grant of the Fondazione Roberto Franceschi, University Bocconi in Milan.

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*The Kiel Institute Focus Series presents papers on current economic policy topics. Their authors are solely responsible for their content and their views or any policy recommendations they may make do not necessarily represent the views or recommendations of the Institute.