The difference between feeling safe and being safe
To be safe, people need to be free from the threat of physical or mental harm. But to feel safe, people need to be free from the perception of potential harm, confident that they understand what the likeliest threats are and that they are capable of avoiding them. Whether their perception is accurate is often incidental, at best, to the feeling itself. “Fear reactions are very primitive,” Arash Javanbakht, a psychiatry researcher at Wayne State University, told me. “We don’t react so well or so accurately to conceptual threats.” People learn what or whom to fear in a few different ways, according to Javanbakht. The things we have experienced or observed ourselves, such as car accidents or the kinds of violence frequently depicted on the news, have a significant impact. So do the warnings of peers and authority figures. This assemblage of influences—family members, friends, co-workers, religious or cultural leaders—is as much a tribe now as it was when these instincts evolved, and the security and support that it can provide create a profound psychological incentive to remain a member in good standing of one’s group. People’s dependence on group affiliation for safety and support can be so strong, in fact, that it sometimes overrides more logical assessments of fear and safety, Javanbakht said. Even in situations where the actions of the tribe’s leaders contribute to the group’s collective misery, many members will find it difficult to reject that leadership. Instead, studies have shown, people dig in their heels when confronted with evidence that challenges their beliefs or identity: They redouble their support for trusted authority figures and reject outside criticism, which they’ll often paint as proof that the group is under threat. Javanbakht compared this dynamic to softer forms of American tribalism, such as being a fan of the Cleveland Browns. The team’s leadership has been antagonizing its fanbase for decades, but some people cannot be mistreated into retracting their emotional and monetary support.
October 26, 2020