We’ve been exposed to a contagion.
It’s manifesting in rampant anti-immigrant sentiment around the globe, and no border wall is going to contain it or stop its spread.This isn’t metaphor or hyperbole. More than 50 years of research shows that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are highly contagious. Often times we’ve caught things like anxiety or depression without ever realizing it.
And today we’re witnessing a pandemic of xenophobia.
The fear of terrorism, fueled in large part by attacks like the devastation in Manchester, is often cited as one of the reasons the U.K. residents voted to leave the European Union. In America, according to a recent Voxpoll, the anti-immigrant movement is driven by concerns about immigrants from the Middle East and Mexico making Americans less safe, resulting in racialized fears of crime and terrorism.
But this rise in nationalism, calls for border walls, and criminalizing sanctuary cities has more to do with psychology than it does either rationality or nationality. We’ve caught a social contagion of fear-based hysteria.
There are dozens of stories about just such occurrences. Consider the case of Fishers, Indiana. In 2004, its residents gathered to talk about an imminent terrorist attack on their town by al Qaeda operatives. It may sound ludicrous, but the rationale was somewhat solid. With national security focused on the terror threats in big cities, people worried extremists might instead look for unprotected targets in smaller cities.
The worry was so real that the C.I.A. held terrorism briefings with small-town law enforcement officials designed to empower rural areas to defend themselves. The Department of Homeland Security even provided resources and counter-terrorism training.
It didn’t matter that a threat of international terrorism in Fishers never existed, or that there was no evidence at any time to suggest the town was a target. However unfounded, the fear itself was real. That’s because fear is a powerful social contagion from which no one is entirely immune.
As casual observers of life, our internal instrumentation, our antennae, our infrared understanding of the world registers the way in which others respond to everyday objects and situations.
The more time we spend among others, the greater the opportunity emotions like fear have to map to our minds. In the eighties, the researchers Michael Cook and Susan Mineka compared two groups of monkeys and their responses to snakes. When encountering a snake, the facial expressions of wild rhesus monkeys indicated fear, and most primates fled confrontation. But laboratory-raised monkeys, isolated from fear-based behavior and sheltered from the knowledge of potential danger, remained calm, even became playful around snakes. The fearful monkeys, raised among other primates in the jungle, exposed to their fear-based responses, literally aped others’ dread. Fear also leaps between people through one’s expressions, gestures, and tone.
Racial intolerance, fear of immigrants, and opposition to sanctuary cities spread the same way.
Our fears of terrorism and violence are valid. In my hometown of San Francisco a woman was shot and killed in 2015 by a man who’d been previously deported five times to his home country of Mexico. Crimes like these are horrendous, no matter who perpetrates them. That it was carried out by an illegal immigrant is enough to make the most levelheaded person worry, especially when the federal government casts the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants as dangerous criminals, spotlighting alleged dangers they pose.
Yet overwhelming research shows that these fears are overblown. Reports by the Sentencing Project and the libertarian Cato Institute find that both legal and illegal immigrants “commit crimes at lower rates than do native-born Americans.”
Still, we continue to harbor fear even when all of the evidence suggests none of these arguments is remotely true.
That’s because the fear is real even if the facts are not.
And fear-based hysteria spreads like a virus by the way we witness authority figures — from Trump to the Justice Department – responding to it.
Back in Fishers, Indiana, the F.B.I. and analysts from the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Intelligence, dispatched counterterrorism experts. The local police chief, Homeland Security officials, the Secret Service, and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies led public hearings. If there was ever any doubt that terrorists were plotting against Fishers, these overblown countermeasures suggested that maybe the danger wasn’t so unfounded after all.
That is, administrators attempting to show that they were taking the threat seriously, by virtue of their presence, only wound up confirming for the worried populace that there was something truly wrong, and signaled a legitimacy to their concerns.
Only in the end did the town come to find that there was nothing wrong to begin with, that these overblown responses did little but fan the flames. There was no terror threat, just heightened speculations, hyper-vigilance, and volumes of misinformation.
To stop the spread of this strange contagion, it falls on our communities to set the record straight and deliver accurate and scientifically sound facts. Immigration status is not an indicator for criminality. To help the rest of us avoid catching the hysteria of xenophobia, rational voices must speak louder than the voices stoking panic.
Our responsibility to one another is to seek out the facts rather than so easily giving into the frenzy. The fix is logic over myth. The CIA and Homeland Security officials could stay in Washington DC instead of visiting Indiana. With no evidence to believe symptoms are real, they will completely vanish. Evidence supersedes fear. A contagion is eradicated.
Lee Daniel Kravetz is the author of Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves (Harper Wave).