Donald Trump and the Psychology of Fear

January 5, 2016

Categories: Fear,Politics

Fear is a powerful emotion. Psychologist Abraham Maslow said that our need for safety and security is foundational to our existence. The only needs that are more foundational are biological needs such as oxygen, food, and water.

Because our need for safety and security is so core to who we are, when those needs are threatened, everything else takes a back seat. We see this happening in our country right now with attitudes toward Muslims. For many of us, our desire to be rational and tolerant is placed on the back burner. Our fear is in the driver’s seat, and it is running the show.

I think this is one of the reasons Donald Trump has done so well this election season. People are afraid, and Trump is offering a message that focuses on safety and security. People are responding to that message.

In psychology, there is an area of research called Terror Management Theory. Basically, the idea is that we each carry around anxiety about the fact that we will die someday. The more we are reminded about that anxiety, the more we focus on protecting ourselves and our own group. For example, U.S. participants who were primed to think about their own impending death were more likely to express negative attitudes toward those who lived outside the United States. Christian participants who were primed to think about their own death were more likely to express negative attitudes toward Muslims.

Sometimes I wonder if this is why the Bible talks so much about fear. In fact, ‘Do not be afraid’ is the most often repeated command in the Bible. Maybe God knew something about how crazy we tend to get when we are afraid.

I think my favorite verse about fear is in the book of 1 John. The writer contrasts fear and love: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 Jn 4:18).

This verse lines up pretty well with the findings from Terror Management Theory. When our lives are filled with fear, we tighten up our boundaries. We want to secure our borders. We don’t want to engage with anyone who might be different. In a sense, we stop loving.

Be careful the next time you find yourself overwhelmed with fear. We all need safety and security, but let’s not allow our fear to stop us from loving a world in need.

Discussion: How do you cope with your fear? What do you think about the contrast between fear and love?


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  1. […] have been lots of articles and blog posts in recent weeks criticizing Donald Trump. (I even wrote one of them.) Sometimes these articles ask psychologists or other mental health professionals to diagnose […]

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