Fear is the emotion that is produced when you expect that your body or your feelings might get hurt. Fear is one of the seven basic emotions that cause human beings all over the world to make the same facial expression. Here is what a fearful expression looks like. It is similar to the expression produced by surprise. The main difference is that the surprise expression is faster and makes the mouth go slack.

In Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, many of the characters have been trained to recite a the Litany Against Fear, to master their fear in dangerous situations:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Too much fear can be dangerous, but so can too little. Fear is the emotion that motivates people to avoid the risk of physical or psychological injury. Psychologists use the term phobia to refer to baseless fears that cause suffering or interfere with functioning. (Note that many phobias also contain a big element of disgust.) In contrast, people in the military sometimes use the term NAFOD (no apparent fear of death) to describe people who knowingly take pointless risks.

Our hypothesized ‘NAFOD’ patient is reckless beyond the hard-wired risk taking profile of an adult male, is knowledgeable about death, is aware of its causes, takes risks not classified as ‘calculated’, is not a hero-type personality, is stubborn, and shares many traits of, but not nearly enough of, the disorders listed above.

Fear might be a mind-killer, at least in certain situations; but it can also be a life-saver. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of harmless things while unconcerned about true threats. In the following video, Barry Glassner explains that Americans’ ideas about what is dangerous and what is not is being distorted by the media’s scaremongering:

Fear can be good or bad, depending on the context. The important question is how to let fear be your servant, rather than your master. For that to happen, you must develop skills in evaluating risk. You must develop a basic understanding of how the world works, and a basic understanding of probability.

Herbert’s Litany Against Fear stuck in my mind because it teaches an important principle. Fear is a natural, physiological reaction to perceived risk. Fear prepares the body for “fight or flight”, not for calm reasoning. Yet to avoid the dangers we confront in the modern world, we need to do more thinking than fighting or running. Thus, it would be useful to find some mental discipline that would help one stay calm and rational in the face of danger. Such a discipline would help you develop courage, which is the ability to do things that scare you.

Brain researchers have recently discovered that people with higher levels of social fear tend to be politically conservative, and especially to hold negative views of members of outgroups. Although a fearful disposition could be at least partly genetic, education plays a huge moderating role. I suspect that poorly educated people are more susceptible to race-baiting and fear-mongering, while better-educated people are less fearful because they are better able to evaluate and cope with risk.