Sex sells! You’ve probably heard that phrase. Marketing executives across the Western world have long understood the relationship between titillation and consumer spending. Humans are strongly wired to react to sexual signals and messages, so the image of a bare-midriffed young woman modelling some jeans, or a ripped man downing his Diet Coke at 11am screams to the human brain to get the pleasure zone on standby.

Creating a ‘sexy’ image for your brand is usually a good way of hocking your products. It’s the reason why adverts are still mostly full of near-perfect twenty-somethings and why an attractive actor or actress will do better in Hollywood than a more talented but less conventionally appealing performer.

Neuroscience is Sexy!

The reason sex sells is due to the more primitive part of our brain, sometimes called ‘The Lizard Brain’. It’s part of our limbic cortex which governs various behaviours, emotions, decisions, etc. Regardless of how advanced a lifeform we are, humans are still mammals. As such, we have primary drives and instincts to ensure the survival of the species and to propagate. Being that sex is how we make babies, sexual imagery provokes that primitive part of the brain into paying attention.

Another thing that marketers know is that our ability to make informed decisions reduces with our level of arousal. Most people, when having sex, can be convinced to agree to all sorts of things they wouldn’t typically be interested in as the ‘heat of the moment’ when we’re aroused is a powerful force.

In shops, while they might not be able to trigger quite such an extreme response, they can put up posters, cardboard cutouts and play the type of soft music we’ve come to associate with romance and nookie. All of it is calculated to make you part with money, no different to how girls jiggling their tits on Babestation want to convince men that a £20 wank is something they’d like.

Sex and Fear: Not So Different

Sex isn’t the only primitive instinct we have. Procreating only ensures the continuation of the species. We also possess a self-preservation instinct that commonly manifests itself in fear. Much like sex, our response to fear can be overwhelming and reduce our ability to think critically and make informed decisions. Our brain switches to an autopilot mode and guides our decisions for us. The reason is simple; if there is a threat, we cannot waste time contemplating the various outcomes of any actions. We need to make a spur of the moment decision, often called ‘fight or flight’.

Marketers know this too, and certain people will use it. Some newspapers, for example, fill their pages with horrifying material. Ostensibly reporting news, highlighting inhumanity and spreading awareness, what they’re really doing is profiting from fear. These publications often identify a specific issue and seek to manufacture a moral panic to incite their readers into outrage. The danger they highlight need not even be real; imagined or perceived threats are just as effective at inducing the states of anger, frustration and fearfulness they seek.

You might ask why they do this? Because much like sex can become a crutch, so too can fear. Bombarding an individual with information that suggests constant attack changes that person’s outlook on the world. Putting people into a semi-permanent state of concern results in that person’s views and decisions being transferred to their brain’s survivalist autopilot. They won’t question the motivations behind what they’re reading because they are developing biases that are being regularly confirmed by the publication telling them about it.

Nobody’s Perfect

To an extent, we are all somewhat naturally intolerant. We fill our social spheres with those who generally share our views to create an echo chamber. Consequently, we receive further confirmation of our biases from our peers. The Internet, and social media in particular, has allowed for previously unheard of levels of interaction and engagement with those whose views and outlooks match our own. While belittling people for ‘virtue signalling’ is a current favourite criticism levelled by those who consider themselves anti-PC, they’re just as guilty of it because they make those criticisms to receive the warm embrace of affirmation from like-minded cohorts.

Even people who proudly proclaim themselves to be accepting because “I vote Labour and my mate’s a Tory” won’t be overly enthused about spending time with them if every night out results in a heated argument about the NHS. In essence, we all prioritise certain things as being incredibly important and apply an unwavering moral significance to them. Those who stand in direct opposition to these stances are pushed from our social sphere, while those who stand with us are embraced. Therefore, while we can have disagreements about matters that we have deemed trivial, we are less inclined to entertain anybody who we view as being in direct moral opposition. Some people are more willing to look for common ground than others, of course, but in essence none of us wants to argue all the fucking time.

Just Like a Pill

Fear can have a narcotic effect, and an individual can become subservient to its grasp. All that is needed is a constant stream of material designed to provoke outrage. Outrage itself leads to fear-based intolerance and hatred. Hatred is reinforced through confirmation bias. Social groups sharing in a hatred amplify the intensity of their hostility. Such groups find more stories to share with each other which further exacerbates their anger. The entire process is planned to trap an individual in a self-fulfilling cycle of outraged responses, stripping them of their capacity to consider a topic with rationalism and dancing to the tune of a Pied Piper for whom all of this is a means to fill up a bank account.

When confronted with evidence that counters their point of view, those trapped in this cycle are far more likely to look for a way to dismiss it than consider it. Those who shill fear to sell newspapers, television programmes, books, podcasts and blogs often plant the idea that there is a conspiracy or coverup afoot. Despite usually working within large, organised groups, they seek to position themselves as one of a handful of truth-tellers in a sea of lies. Language used to evoke imagery of an underdog fighting a corrupt establishment is used liberally to label alternative views as being consistent with the perceived threat.

‘Truth’ Can Be Just an Idea

Of course, none of this would be effective without some kernel of truth which is why misleading invectives are usually garnished with cherry-picked facts to persuade. Even if the bulk of the accusation is mere opinion, hearsay or fictitious, providing something can be verified the complaint is often deemed valid which is sufficient to confirm biases in the black and white world of social media-driven discourse. Those who profiteer from outrage only care about getting people to believe what they want them to believe. Nuanced discussion can go hang.

Ultimately, the only ones who thrive from this are those whose livelihoods are entwined with provoking outrage and spreading fear. While their followers may feel like they’re getting the real, unwashed truth about the dangers we face, they’re merely being used as personal ATMs by individuals that couldn’t give a fuck about them. Society suffers because of this cynical money-grabbing. Divisions widen, hostile attitudes manifest and the likelihood of violence increases. The greater the supposed threat, the stronger the will to ‘deal’ with it in blood.

It’s All About the Money, Money, Money

When a man stands outside a court and violates a non-reporting order, he’s not doing it to highlight a non-existent cover-up. He’s doing it to promote himself because he knows his supporters will chip in for his ‘legal fees’. The individual who writes a book lambasting the ‘Deep State’ isn’t doing this as a lone crusader against evil government oppression. He’s doing it because a few thousand sales pay his bills for that month. Somebody who travels to foreign countries to non-contextually film immigrants in a market isn’t seeking to highlight the problematic nature of immigration policies. She’s seeking to boost her own profile off the back of racists because that’s how she gets fucking paid.

None of these people would be making their living if not for a deliberate and calculated methodology which weaponises fear and monetises outrage. There is indeed a myriad of problems in the world that need action, but those who manufacture division and social strife offer no solutions because solving the world’s problems is bad for business. Causing further problems, however, is great for business because it lends credibility to their position in the eyes of their followers and strengthens their voice.

Whether they’re a newspaper owner, a media mogul, a self-proclaimed political blogger or just some wanker with a Twitter account, they rely on perpetuating a cycle of fear to make their money, and they don’t give a fuck who gets hurt in the process.