Preying on Fear

The animalistic instinct to prey on fear runs through society, dictating power structures.

Preying on Fear
Photo by Melanie Wasser / Unsplash

An instinct, or compulsion, found throughout the animal kingdom is to prey on animals that display fear. Animals tend to experience fear in the presence of danger, such as predators. Therefore predators can use it as a signal to identify prey.

From a predatory viewpoint, animals display fear because they are vulnerable. Fear can suggest the animal sees itself as weaker than the predator — perhaps because it is hiding an injury, aware of a weakness it believes can be exploited, or just doesn’t believe itself to be able to successfully defend itself, for whatever reason. So, when a predatory animal sees fear in another animal, it will likely act towards it as prey.

In the absence of fear, predators start from the cautious assumption that an animal may be a formidable challenge, is not vulnerable to being attacked, or may be a threat. That it may have hidden strengths. It wards them off.

This predatory guidance system is a simple one, yet it extends from the animal kingdom deep into human behaviour, throughout civilisation. The instinct to prey on those displaying fear in many ways governs the modern world, and ends up dictating its power structures.

Humans guided by this predatory instinct, and who have developed a taste for it, will be reluctant to stop acting on it. This is especially true after they have experienced success in advancing their interests, or satisfying their desires, using it.

Unlike animals, humans construct rationalisations to justify this kind of predatory behaviour. Often it is rationalised in such a way that it can be passed off as a moral act — or at least, gives them plausible deniability.

When predatory behaviour becomes tied to false or deceptive rationalisations, it becomes stubborn; resistant to change. If such behaviour is falsely presented as an innocent or moral act, challenging the behaviour amounts to a severe accusation. It ups the ante to challenge it, and doing so typically results in extremely hostile responses, and/or doubling down on the rationalisation.

The most common and effective rationalisation used to justify preying on fear, and to turn potential prey into “fair game,” is to equate fear with guilt or shame that has arisen as the result of immoral behaviour. A “burn the witch” mentality.

The presence of fear is defined opportunistically as a reliable signal of having committed wrongdoing. That way, anyone who can be preyed on becomes fair game to be preyed on.

A straw man is constructed, where possible, perhaps after the fact, that turns the act of attacking the vulnerable into an honourable act, an attempt to help, an act of self-defence, or an “innocent” and justifiable mistake. These kinds of rationalisations, broadly speaking ones used to attack the vulnerable, run through all levels of society, from bullies in the school playground, to dictators in theatres of large-scale wars involving millions. The rationalisation is what makes this kind of behaviour “sticky,” and a source of evil not present in the animal kingdom.

The equation of fear with guilt, and the emotion of guilt with wrongdoing, lies at the heart of puritanical ways of thinking — focused around “God-fearing” ways and the “guilty conscience.” It forms core parts of some religious belief systems, and might well explain part of their success. A religion that potentially empowers predators, and offers the ability to cloak predatory behaviour as moral acts, will (without necessarily being designed to) likely find itself with a leg up in the world.

The problem with equating fear with guilt, and guilt with wrongdoing, is that they are each very different things. This model of judging moral behaviour is accurate at times. However, though it overlaps with reality, it is logically untethered from it. Fear is not anchored to wrongdoing. It is not a reliable signal of guilt. Neither is the feeling of guilt a reliable signal of wrongdoing.

When we prey on those who display fear, at times that fear will signal guilt, and at times that guilt will signal wrongdoing. There are also countless other reasons people experience feelings of guilt or fear for irrational reasons. For example, as the result of an anxiety disorder — one of the most common mental health disorders — or a guilt complex, perhaps stemming from childhood experiences or trauma from previous abuse. Preying on fear usually means preying on the vulnerable, and often those suffering from mental health disorders.

Encouraging a mentality that equates fear or anxiety with guilt, and the feeling of guilt with wrongdoing, rather than simply looking at the actions of people as the basis for those judgements, encourages predatory behaviour that opportunistically attacks anyone that shows vulnerability to being attacked. It builds a society that puts predators into positions of power.

Part of the problem is, simply, ignorance. Some people develop predatory instincts and rationalisations for following those instincts before they have recognised them for what they are. From that position, reversing course becomes a grand act of admission of guilt on their part. For such an admission to come from a person who might have attacked people on the basis of fear for most of their life is unlikely. Leaning on plausible deniability will likely appear the much easier, and less risky, option.

Another part of the problem is that behind the instinct to prey on fear is fear itself. Some predators have a deep fear of being preyed on, possibly as a result of being abused themselves at some point, which they project into the world by acting in predatory ways, seeking to avoid being prey. Their response to fear ends up contributing to a world where it is dangerous to experience fear, creating a vicious cycle.

That is not to say we should absolve individuals of the responsibility of finding ways to manage and overcome irrational fears and feelings of guilt. That is an important responsibility, to work on and attempt to find solutions for, or to manage as best as possible. It is not a responsibility that should be ignored — though for some, irrational fears or feelings of guilt will never be fully resolved, despite working on them or seeking professional help.

Neither is the above to say fear and feelings of guilt should never be used as indicators of wrongdoing. Obviously, sometimes they do indicate wrongdoing — though probably much less often than assumed. Especially in adults, who — assuming they have pursued paths of wrongdoing their whole life — are likely to have established comfort with those acts, and found ways to circumvent feelings fear and guilt. The practised criminal, or agent of habitual immoral action, is often far from a bag of nerves.

When we create a world that encourages, or culturally accepts, predation based on the display of fear or guilt, we ensure a world that will be plentiful in fear. One that has failed to intellectually surpass the animal kingdom.

Michel de Montaigne, who popularised the essay as a literary genre, put this danger of fear well in a thought later echoed by others, including Franklin D. Roosevelt in a famous speech that included the line “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”:

The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents.

The root of this “fear of fear” is the potential for it, that passion alone, to turn those around you into predators. And the truth of that statement, the acceptance of behaviours that makes this potential real, is a culturally fixable problem.

A good sign that civilisation has truly progressed humanity, and that things are on a good course, will be when instincts like that of preying on fear are widely recognised for what they are: primitive guidance systems that lead inescapably to a society entrenched in immoral behaviour on the ground level, where the vulnerable are abused, where fear propagates itself, and that builds power structures that boost predatory individuals into positions at the top.


James Lanternman writes movie reviews, short fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected], or follow on Twitter.