Mean World Syndrome


Fear is a common human emotion and while most of us see it as something that stops us from doing certain things, it also plays a role in protecting us from potential threats.

The 10 most common human fears we have to deal with are:

  • Losing our freedom
  • Pain
  • Disappointment
  • Misery
  • Loneliness
  • Ridicule
  • Rejection
  • Death
  • Failure
  • The unknown

Fear, especially of the unknown and of our future, is something people have always worried about and this is reflected in popular culture. As early as 1898, H G Wells exploited a fear of alien life forms and foreign invasion in his novel The War of the Worlds.

Then there’s George Orwell’s ominous novel, 1984. Orwell’s fear of an all-powerful government struck a chord with so many people that even today, his novel is often referenced, with “Big Brother” an icon for anything that might forfeit our right to privacy.

Over time, such feelings of apprehension have not only failed to fade, but have multiplied, such that today many of us experience unrealistic fears of cancer, terrorism, killer viruses, gun-wielding teenagers, home invasion, flying . . .. Indeed, we’re living in an unprecedented age of anxiety and paranoia.

Do you ever wonder what part the mass media play in generating these attitudes? An ever-increasing barrage of realistic, graphic and negative images invade our homes daily through an ever-expanding choice of television channels, radio stations and websites, and they manipulate our perceptions of the real world.

There is a lot of truth to media scholar George Gerbner’s “mean world syndrome”, a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

Images of real-life events pose a real threat to our mental and emotional states and have the potential to induce anxiety. The problem is, on an average day, we will probably read newspaper headlines like, “Rapist Jailed,” “Women Abducted by Taliban,” “North Korea to Aim Rockets at US” or “City Worker Kills Wife.” The media often feeds us stories that are morbid, heart-wrenching, tragic or sad, and rarely without some element of fear associated with them. As the cliché says about the industry, “If it bleeds, it leads!

In an article presented at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, philosopher Colin Allen showed that merely exposing viewers to a clip from the reality series Fear Factor, where contestants were covered in insects, increased their heart rates by 11 bpm. Participants in the study reported more negative emotions while watching the reality stunts than when viewing a similar clip from the fictitious movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

It’s not that there aren’t any good stories happening in the world. But imagine if your newspaper, TV channel or radio station only ever reported on good deeds and stories; the news you listen to at night only showed pleasant and heartwarming images. Based on Gerbner’s logic, ever so slowly, you might start to feel safer, and safer. Eventually, you would stop watching the news or reading the paper as you find less reason to pay money to be merely comforted.

While the mass media does play a role in ensuring public safety by informing and warning us of dangerous situations or places, it also relies on our fears to create consumption. If we were not worried about where not to go at night; being mugged, raped or murdered; having thugs invade our homes; or our children seduced by paedophiles and killers released back into society, we would have less need to spend our hard-earned pay packets on taking protective measures.

Advertising likewise feeds on and fuels our fear in order to sell products. There is the fear of contamination by germs (anti-bacterial cleaning products), fear of exclusion by appearing unacceptable (fashion and beauty), fear of illness (multivitamins and supplements), even a fear of bad breath—the list is as long as the day.

So it should come as no surprise when speaking about the days just before His return, Jesus said fear would pervade the times:

For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equalled again” (Matthew 24:21).

There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25–28; underline added).

Is it possible to deal with our fears and overcome them? Listen to a couple of statements full of hope:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

When we get to know Jesus, we will not be filled with fear, anxiety or depression. Instead, we are given feelings that include love, joy and peace (see Galations 5:22, 23).

In these times, Jesus is the true source of peace. How do you feel about that?

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