Tag Archive for: Fear

Are you worried or anxious? Here is a mindful story to consider

By Simon Bell

Take your time, read the story and let the ideas wash over you.


In the green years of the world, in Homer’s Greece, when hero’s and deific intelligences regularly came together in sunny warm madness’s of colloquy and love, a god of hooves and horns played a pipe to dancing nymphs and dryads in mythic praise of the Lords of all that was. Pan. Descended by confusing paths from Dionysius and the Lords of Misrule. Pan in Greek means: ‘all’. Everything, involving all. The years passed and with it passed the green and sunny age of heroes and gods. The age of steel and concrete found no need for Crazy dancing Pan with his pipes, but still wanted the all and, so all and everything became pan, the all: Pandemonium, Pantheistic, Panchromatic, Pantechnicon, Panegyrical, the confusing list goes on. Eventually you come to Pandemic – all the demos, all the people. 

Maybe drunken and pipe playing Pan would not have been that happy with this development. Pan was the bringer of joy to all the people. All the people. Now, as his name and nature evolved, the trouble begins, and disease is carried to each and every one.

A pandemic can be a terrible weapon to attack people with but in this story, the pandemic is not the weapon. It is the story around the pandemic which is the weapon. A pandemic is defined as “a disease prevalent over a whole country or the world”. Some consider a disease to be pandemic when it is established on all continents. But this is academic. A pandemic is when the mind says it is and this is often determined by the ways in which the news is broadcast, and the story is told. The pandemic of the mind rather than the pandemic of the physical disease. Not an adjective so much as a horror story. Here is a story:

Jane and Paul and Karl are friends and they share a flat in London. They work in the city and have a nice 20-something lifestyle. It’s good. Then the story begins.


The story is told that there is a new killer virus let loose in China. Irresponsibility is the story. Here is a version of the story: The virus should never have existed but for bad thinking and bad planning by bad actors in a poorly controlled situation.

And, the story is told, this is the disease or could be the disease, it does not matter which, that may well be the disease that some people in some places have been talking about for a long time and it could be the disease that may develop into a global killer. Because, the story goes, it may evolve and become much more lethal and then it could kill millions.


Jane and Paul and Karl have jobs in offices with lots of people. They talk, touch, sneeze and cough in the office. Everyone does. A case of the disease, moving invisibly in the air between China and maybe Italy, is found in London.

The story is that the case is potentially fatal, could be the first of hundreds if not thousands. An expert on the internet says that this is likely to produce the worst possible outcome.


Jane and Paul and Karl feel fear. Fear is now a thing. It is real and alive. Fear begins in the small dark places of individual thoughts and the conversations between friends. It pops into life in the space between worrisome words. People find out that people are worried. The need for, and wisdom of holidays is questioned, “do we need one?”, and then, they are cancelled. Food is hoarded and social situations are shunned. Strangers are seen as threats. Friends are avoided. People are driven to isolation and suspicion. It all becomes too much. The fear of fear is worse than the fear of the virus. Something in the dark places of people’s minds breaks.


Jane goes home to her family in the country, safer out of the metropolis. Paul and Karl decide to stay, but for different reasons. One is determined to ‘stick it out’, the other is determined not to appear weak. They both stay but increasingly confine themselves to their own areas in the flat. They meet and talk less and less.

Now the story becomes the carrier of the greatest power of the pandemic. Not the disease which kills a few thousand people in a world where millions die every week from a whole range of totally avoidable causes, but the story told about the disease, this has the potency to debilitate entire continents. The real enemy is one which Pan would have recognised. The real enemy is the story about the disease. This is spread by doxia, a Greek word meaning opinion. Now doxia is weaponised and out of control. Opinion needs no facts or truth. It lives in thought bubbles on the internet, isolated chat rooms and news silos feeding the fires of selected opinion. It has been given licence by the most powerful man on earth. Doxia feeds doxia. In the spaces retained by the voices of those who know least, doxia is spread and with it the untruth. This is a disease of the mind, manifestly vaster and more dangerous than any disease made by nature.

Jane, at home with her parents and Paul and Karl, in their separate parts of the flat are now in uncontained states of anxiety, an anxiety caught as surely as any virus is caught, by human interaction. From this point the story goes in one of two directions, amplification or attenuation. There are two scenarios to explore. In scenario 1 we see the consequence of amplification.

To amplify is easy, doxia produces division and chaos in society leading to a break down in civic and collective norms. Food hoarding, animosity, fighting at petrol stations. This eventually results in the reduction of individual personal and collective responsibility. No surprises that the outcome feeds back into the bonfire of the chaos. Our three find themselves isolated and isolating, lost and losing, helpless and unhelpful. So, we need to consider scenario 2. Attenuation.

To attenuate is not so easy, requiring an act of will to move against the flow of amplification. If the will is present, then contained collaboration at scale can lead to new and innovative collective norms feeding an upgrading of personal and collective fear-facing qualities. Feedback leads to a new and sustainable normal which allows scope for cure and correction, hope and improvement. The crisis does not ‘go to waste’. Here the three friends have other alternate ways to proceed with their lives. Better, more hopeful ways.

The green years of the world are long past. But Pan can still pick up his pipes and play the tune of the turning of the years. The mad dance of life, the life lived and living. Living does not care about the quality of the dance. But humans do. Which path will the dance follow?

(© Simon Bell)

Consider, what is the Meaning of the story? Next, what is relevant to you in this meaning? What value do you place on the relevance? Does this give you any insights? Finally, what might you do differently as a consequence of considering any insights? 

Artwork © Rachel Furze

Fake News, Paradigm of Fear & Sustainability

Fake News, Paradigm of Fear & Sustainability: Research Report on Climate Fear(s)


News manipulation is now a much-discussed reality of 21st century media ethics. Daniel Khaneman has identified that people have a tendency to respond to complex issues in a problematic manner – often making use of instincts (System 1 or S1) in knee jerk responses when a more rational (Systems 2 or S2) approach might be more appropriate. Simply put, human beings have a flawed process for problem structuring. In research carried out between 2015-16 with people engaged in and concerned with climate change, a series of interviews were undertaken concerning public attitudes to fear as a major force in the climate change debate.The results have paved the way to describing a process – the “paradigm of fear,” whereby fear can be weaponised in order to promote knee jerk responses to complex issues. The results of the research were published in a book (Formations of Terror) and a comic (Project Fear)* but lasting questions remain to be addressed: Is fear weaponised by lobbyists in order to promote public response? If fear is weaponised to prompt populations to change, is such action ethical and responsible? Do climate change activists have a responsibility to orientate arguments to the rational and reflective rather than the instinctive and automatic? Describing the formations of terror as a device for fear management, this paper explores the ways in which fear can and is used by all sides in the climate change debate and raises questions about the ethics of social manipulation for even the best of causes.

Simon Bell, United Kingdom

Download the full report here

[Sen. Ed. Note: Bell prefers the title: “Fake News, Fear, Sustainability and the Paradigm of Fear: The Weaponization of Fear as a Lever for the Good?” ]

Much of this paper is drawn from and builds upon an earlier book. The fuller version of this paper is to be found in Bell, S. 2017. Formations of Terror. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars

*For more info: https://fearlessnessmovement.ning.com/blog/operation-project-fear-the-open-university-uk pp. 91-107

Brexit, Trump, Climate Change? They All Have something in Common. Weaponised Fear.

I have been studying fear for the last few years. My particular interest is in big, super-scary, existential fear, ‘our-way-of-life-is-doomed-and-nothing-to-be-done’ kind of fear. Themes from the likely effect of Donald Trump winning the US Presidency to the impact of climate change have provided me with much pause for thought. In my work on fear analysis I have come up with some interesting and overarching observations about how fear is manifest, applied and articulated. I also have been interested to see how fear is amplified and intensified, sometimes without any direct intention to do so on the part of the persons or persons doing the amplification and intensification.

Before I go too far, I do need to say a little in explanation.
I am an academic and I am particularly interested in systems approaches. By systems I mean mental model which help me to understand the world in terms of how things are wired up and connected. The world is very complex and it can be very, very confusing. In a sense everything is wired up to everything else and this can lead to a lot of confusion and indeed fear.
A systems approach can help us to gain insights into specific complexity and I am very interested in the complexity around fear.
Let’s take an example of complexity and fear: Brexit.
I should say at the outset that I am not in favour of Britain leaving Europe (for all kinds of reasons) and I have been looking at the discussions and arguments around Brexit and how they impact on me. They certainly make me feel fearful.
To deal with fear I have developed two systems models to help me. First I want to identify the fear process – to do that I have the scary (but accurate) sounding: ‘Paradigm of Fear’. Secondly I want to understand my response to fear. To do this I use a far more boringly labeled model called the ‘Fear response system’. How does the first part of this, the Paradigm bit, work? I will take a look at it and then see how I apply it to Brexit.
The Paradigm of Fear is actually a fairly simple circular model involving a fear weapon being aimed at a target, resulting in an emotion which can become a state which then encourages more weapons and more targeting etc. Here is a picture of it.
The paradigm works in a wicked way – by which I do not mean it is evil in nature but that it has some clever and tricky ways of tripping us up.
For example, Brexit. I am aware of a huge campaign of fear around Brexit. This is mainly aimed at people who fear immigrants – this is the primary weapon. The fear of large, possibly malignly intended groups of ‘others’ has been with us since long before Genghis Khan and I guess it will be with us for a lot longer. The weapon of un-contained numbers of ‘others’ coming to the UK is ramped up with no reference to existing or possible control mechanisms, benefits of immigration or the moral cases for aiding the destitute stranger. The immigrant is weaponised in stark and scary ways.

The target? Well that is you and me and everyone else but I think that the main target is those who feel that their lives or the lives of their children and friends are going to be severely impacted by these alien others taking their life chances. If the targeting is successful, then an emotion of fear is developed and if this in turn is allowed free range then it becomes a built-in state of fear. Here is the wicked part. When a state of fear is emergent – then the weapon can be refined, amplified and applied again and again to devastating effect. A real daisy-cutter of a fear bomb. Fear response in this case leads to a greater proclivity to a fear response. The cycle becomes reinforcing and amplification of fear almost runs on rails. A little more pushing and it is almost unstoppable. Look at the impact of the anti-Jewish campaign in Germany in the 1930s. It did not end well.
Of course the fear weapon can be used by all sides in a struggle. If we swop immigration for economic collapse, then we have a major theme in the Remain campaign. All sides use fear. What to do? Well, we can’t stop people using fear as a way to make us jump around.
What we can do is refuse to be stampeded on instinct. To try to understand the dog whistle, to understand how we are being manipulated by it and figure out for ourselves the rights and wrongs of the case. Systems approaches help.

Simon Bell is Professor of Innovation and Methodology at the Open University. His book: The Formations of Terror is due for publication with Cambridge Scholars early in 2017.

Prof. Simon Bell at the Open University

Formations of Terror

Bell, S. (2017). Brexit, Trump, Climate Change? They all have something in common. Weaponised fear. Open University Research Archive.

Project Fear Comic Formations of Terror Simon Bell

The Project Fear Comic

The project fear comic – find out how fear is weaponised and targeted and how to avoid making things worse! This comic is an easy access point to understand the Formations of Terror (2017.)

Video Link

Bell S. The Project Fear comic

Understanding fear – Introducing the Formations of Terror

Organisations and individuals suffer from fear – probably more than they like to admit. Numerous decisions are made based on underlying fears and anxieties but how can we map out and gain power over fearful things? There are a host of books about fear but, there has been little attempt to methodically and systemically assess how fear emerges and is targeted. In exploring the Formations of Terror or FoT participants set about the methodical assessment of fear as an emergent property. Working from personal experience of fear and teaching by use of examples and case studies, the FoT method will derive the main principles which lie behind the manifestation of fear of all kinds. Using climate change as a specific point of focus, fear is seen to be a major force in problem assessment and analysis and, by accident or intention, a significant confusion to human decision making. By studying the FoT, participants will gain a systemic assessment of the main features of the Paradigm of Fear. Furthermore, they will be able to identify Fear Amplifying and Fear Attenuating systems and learn how fear can be contained, how new social forms can arise and how new behaviours and social qualities can mitigate the Formations of Terror.


The Project Fear comic


Find out how fear is weaponised and targeted and how to avoid making things worse! This comic an easy access point to understand the Formations of Terror.