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Brussels attacks: We must not allow terrorists to gain control over our minds

Cars kill far more people than terrorists, yet we aren’t as afraid of them. Extremists know this, and that’s why they thrive

Brussels attack

On Tuesday, in Europe, 71 innocent people died violent deaths. And the same will happen tomorrow, and the next day.. .and so on for the rest of the year. Road deaths across Europe are an ongoing carnage that killed 25,900 in 2014, 1854 of them in the UK [i].

In Brussels on Tuesday at least 30 were killed by bombers, shocking us to the core and spreading alarm across the world. Why is it we can live easily with the equivalent of a jumbo-jet-load of deaths per week on the roads, but are so unsettled by terrorist bombings?

Terrorists know the answer to this question: terrorism is a form of mind control over whole populations that hijacks certain quirks of our brains which diminish our ability rationally to assess risk.

The key fuel for this process is fear. Induce extreme fear in someone’s mind – the shattered glass and bloodied tiles of a familiar airport will do it – and a primitive “fight or flight” cocktail of responses takes over our brains centered on a region called the amygdala. This emotional command center has fast connections with our sight, smell, hearing and other senses that in times of perceived danger over-ride the slower connections with our rational, reflective regions of the brains, particularly in the frontal cortex.

It is this fast-track, ‘hard-wiring’ of the amygdala to our senses that allows fear to take such hold of our minds and inhibits and hence relegates rational analysis parts of our brain to the slow-lane. Useful when it comes to moving fast in an emergency, this becomes a liability when this sensation-fear loop replays endlessly in our minds, with the help of 24 hour television imagery.

Endless replays of the terror on television keep the fear network in overdrive and dulls our capacity for balanced assessment of risk. One of the neural quirks that terrorists understand too well is that we greatly overestimate the likelihood of experiences that come easily to memory: it is hard to forget the horrible images from Brussels yesterday, and so we greatly overestimate the threat from such atrocities.

Another aim of terrorists is to provoke prejudice that would justify their claim of a “crusader” persecution of Muslims worldwide. Interestingly, it seems that more liberally-minded people are more vulnerable to this effect: research in the wake of the 2005 London bombings showed that more liberal people showed a greater increase in prejudice towards Muslims than less liberally-minded people [ii].

We should not allow terrorists to achieve their aim of gaining control over our minds. Dying in a terrorist outrage remains an extremely small risk compared to all the other risks we are faced with every day. Cool rationality, given time, can reign in the whip-fast image-fear connection, and more importantly is the last response that the terrorists need or want in their malignant quest for psychological control.

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This article was first published in the Telegraph online


[ii] Van de Vyver, J., Houston, D.M., Abrams, D., Vasiljevic, M. 2015. Boosting Belligerence: How the July 7, 2005, London Bombings Affected Liberals’ Moral Foundations and Prejudice. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797615615584.

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