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The Comforting Notion of an All-Powerful Enemy

• March 08, 2010 • 1:00 PM

New research supports the notion that we fixate on enemies, and inflate their power, as a defense mechanism against generalized anxiety.

We have seen the enemy, and he is powerful. That’s a recurring motif of contemporary political discourse, as generalized fear mutates for many into a fixation on a ferocious foe.

Partisan rhetoric has turned increasingly alarmist. President Obama has difficulty getting even watered-down legislation passed, yet he is supposedly establishing a socialist state. The Tea Party is viewed as a terrifying new phenomenon, rather than the latest embodiment of a recurring paranoid streak in American politics. Osama bin Laden is likely confined to a cave, but he’s perceived as a threat large enough to justify engaging in torture.

According to one school of thought, this tendency to exaggerate the strength of our adversaries serves a specific psychological function. It is less scary to place all our fears on a single, strong enemy than to accept the fact our well-being is largely based on factors beyond our control. An enemy, after all, can be defined, analyzed and perhaps even defeated.

The notion that focusing our anger on a purportedly powerful foe helps mitigate our fears was first articulated by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in his 1969 book Angel in Armor. It has now been confirmed in a timely paper titled “An Existential Function of Enemyship,” just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

A research team led by social psychologist Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas reports on four studies that suggest people are “motivated to create and/or perpetually maintain clear enemies to avoid psychological confrontations with an even more threatening chaotic environment.” When you place their findings in the context of the many threats (economic and otherwise) people face in today’s world, the propensity to turn ideological opponents into mighty monsters starts to make sense.

In one of Sullivan’s studies, conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign, a group of University of Kansas undergraduates were asked whether they believed enemies of their favored candidate (Obama or John McCain) were manipulating voting machines in an attempt to steal the election.

Prior to considering such conspiracy theories, half were asked to consider the truth of statements such as “I have control over whether I am exposed to a disease,” and “I have control over how my job prospects fare in the economy.” The other half were asked to assess similar statements on relatively unimportant subjects, such as “I have control over how much TV I watch.”

Those who were forced to contemplate their lack of control over significant life events “reported a stronger belief in opponent-led conspiracies,” the researchers report.

In another study, the student participants were randomly assigned to read one of two essays. The first stated that the U.S. government is well-equipped to handle the economic downturn, and that crime rates are declining due to improved law enforcement. The second reported the government is not at all competent to cope with the recession, and crime rates are going up in spite of the authorities’ best efforts.

They were then presented with a list of hypothetical events and asked to pick the most likely cause of each: A friend, an enemy, or neither (that is, the event happened randomly).

Those “informed” that the government was not in control were more likely to view a personal enemy as responsible for negative events in their lives. In contrast, those told things are running smoothly “seemed to defensively downplay the extent to which enemies negatively influence their lives,” the researchers report.

These studies suggest it’s oddly comforting to have someone, or something, you can point to as the source of your sorrows. This helps explain why Americans inevitably find an outside enemy to focus on, be it the Soviets, the Muslims or the Chinese. Given that society pays an obvious price for such illusions, how might we go about reducing the need for “enemyship?”

“If you can somehow raise people’s sense that they have control over their lives and negative hazards in the world, their need to ‘enemize’ others should be reduced,” Sullivan said in an e-mail interview. “In our first study, for instance, we showed that people who feel dispositionally high levels of control over their lives did not respond to a reminder of external hazards by attributing more influence to an enemy. Any social structure or implementation that makes people feel more control over their lives should thus generally reduce (though perhaps not completely eliminate) the ‘need’ or tendency to create or attribute more influence to enemy figures.

“In our third study, we showed that if people perceived the broader social system as ordered, they were more likely to respond to a threat to personal control by boosting their faith in the government, rather than by attributing more influence to an enemy. So, again, we see that the need to perceive enemies is reduced when people are made to feel that they are in control of their lives, or that there is a reliable, efficient social order that protects them from the threat of random hazards.

“One could imagine, then, that circumstances which allow all citizens to be medically insured, or to have a clear sense of police protection, could reduce the tendency to seek out enemy figures to distill or focalize concerns with random, imminent threats.”

Sullivan also offers two more personal potential solutions. “If people have such inherent needs for control and certainty in their lives, they should try to channel those needs as best they can into socially beneficial pursuits,” he says. “Lots of people pursue science, art and religion — just to give a few examples — as means of boiling down uncertainty about the world into clear systems of rules and engagement with reality, creating small domains for themselves in which they can exert a sense of mastery. Insofar as these pursuits don’t harm anyone, but still provide a sense of control, they can reduce the need for enemyship.

“A final solution would be to encourage people to simply accept uncertainty and lack of control in their lives,” he adds. “Some meaning systems — Taoism for example — are rooted in this idea, that people can eventually accept a certain lack of control and eventually become resigned to this idea to the extent that they no longer react defensively against it.”

So there, at least, is a practical place to begin: Less MSNBC and more meditation.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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