The instinct to prey on fear

An essay.

An instinct found throughout the animal kingdom concerns fear: the instinct to prey on those that display it. Animals generally experience fear in the presence of danger, such as predators. So predators can use it as a signal to identify potential prey.

From a predatory viewpoint, animals show fear because they are vulnerable. Fear may suggest the animal sees itself as weaker than the predator, perhaps because it is hiding an injury or weakness. When a predator sees this 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 even be a threat — that it may have hidden strengths.

This predatory guidance system is a simple one, controlling all kinds of animalistic behaviour concerning life and death.

Yet as simple and animalistic as it is, the same guidance system extends to human behaviour. The instinct to prey on those who show fear in many ways governs the modern world, dictating power structures.

Humans guided by the instinct to prey on fear, and who have developed a taste for it, are unlikely to stop behaving based on it. This is especially true after they have experienced significant “success” (the advancement of their interests, the satisfaction of desires) when acting on this instinct.

Unlike other animals, humans generally construct rationalisations to justify predatory behaviour. Often predatory behaviour is rationalised in such a way that it can be passed off as an act of good. To those who construct such rationalisations, admitting to preying on the vulnerable is unthinkable.

When predatory behaviour is tied to such falsehoods or deceptions it is hard to change. If a predatory behaviour is falsely presented as a normal or moral act, and goes unchallenged, challenging this behaviour by suggesting it is predatory amounts to a severe accusation. Levelling severe accusations at predators usually results in hostile responses that in effect cause the predator double down on their deception.

The most common and effective rationalisation used to justify preying on fear, and to turn potential prey into “fair game,” is to equate that fear with guilt or shame that has arisen as the result of some kind of immoral behaviour. The presence of fear or anxiety is defined as a reliable signal of having committed some (unknown) moral wrongdoing.

This wrongdoing needs form, so predators fill in the blank in whatever way they can (then point to the same fear as a signal or proof of the wrongdoing's truth). A straw man is constructed, if possible, that turns the act of attacking the vulnerable into an honourable act, a moral duty, or an act of self-defence.

This equation of fear with guilt, and guilt with wrongdoing, is at the heart of puritanical ways of thinking. It forms the foundation of some religions and goes some way to explaining their success. A religion that empowers predators, and offers the ability to cloak predatory behaviour as moral acts, will probably have a leg up in the world. It crosses the divide, as they say.

Of course, 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 might overlap with reality at times but is logically untethered from it. Fear is not anchored to wrongdoing. It is not a reliable signal of guilt. Further, guilt is not a reliable signal of wrongdoing, either.

When we prey on those who display fear, sometimes that fear might signal guilt, and sometimes that guilt might signal wrongdoing. In the other cases, there are a million reasons people experience guilt when they should not, or experience fear for no logical reason. One obvious reason is the result of an anxiety disorder: one of the most common mental health disorders.

When we encourage mentalities that equate fear or anxiety with guilt, and guilt with wrongdoing, what we do is encourage predatory behaviour that simply and opportunistically attacks anyone who shows a vulnerability to being attacked. We encourage a society that puts predatory individuals in positions of power. If not exclusively, at least dominantly.

Part of the problem is, simply, ignorance. People develop predatory instincts and rationalisations for following those instincts before they have recognised them for what they are. From that position, reversing course would be a grand act of admission of guilt. For such a grand act to come from a person who has attacked people on the basis of guilt their whole life, this is unlikely.

Part of the problem is probably that behind the instinct to prey on fear is fear itself. Some predators have a deep fear of being preyed on, which they project outwards and back into the world by becoming predators themselves. Their fear ends up contributing to a world where it is dangerous to experience fear. A vicious cycle of destructive actions.

A good sign that civilisation has truly progressed humanity, and that things are on a good course, will be when animalistic instincts like that of preying on fear are recognised for what they are: brutal, uncivilised guidance systems that lead inescapably to society entrenched in immoral behaviour on the ground level, with corrupt power structures where predators are guaranteed places at the top.