abstract image of a screaming face

Image: Andrew Hale (Flickr)

Pathways to managing regulatory fear

20th November 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

We have made significant progress as a society toward teaching individuals the craft of managing fear productively. We have been less successful, however, in designing regulatory systems that recognize fear as both an enabler and disabler of behavioural and social change. This blog suggests that regulatory interventions can turn fear into motivation when the intervention incorporates an acceptably fair pathway forward.

Threat and fear are adaptive. We are right to fear war, the loss of our livelihood, or an impending assault. Security is a basic need and fear tells us when security is threatened. Fear triggers a protective response: We might fight, or flee, or try to neutralise the threat. Authority threatens too. Tending and befriending is a common way of neutralising fear of authority, often more efficient than fighting or fleeing in modern democracies.

That said, fear misleads us on occasion. Fears can be sparked by “unreal” images such as memories of the past (for example, post traumatic stress), threatening hallucinations, or imagined adversity (as can occur with anxiety and depression). Fears can also be wished away: we can deny things that threaten to overpower us (for example, globally climate change or locally child protection). Our challenge is to understand fear, read its “reality” and manage it productively.

From birth we learn how to cope with fear. We are continuously learning lessons in choosing the best fear response. Some of us by temperament are more fearful than others and learning is more difficult: our emotions are aroused more quickly and take longer to settle. Emotional arousability is a personality characteristic that covers more than fear – being easily frustrated, quick tempered, struggling for emotional and impulse control, and finding it hard to think clearly when in strife.

We can all have our moments for reacting in this way, but if we are consistently easily aroused emotionally across place and time, we can repeatedly get stuck behaviourally. We have difficulty filtering and assembling information and choosing an adaptive path for managing our fear. We do not experience the feedback that goes with successful fear management, so it is hard for us to move forward and overcome our difficulties.

But all is not lost. This is where our social infrastructure, that is, the resources and social capital we can access, come into play. Social infrastructure can build (or for that matter destroy) the quality of our coping responses. Good social capital around us can support and help us find new goals, harness our skills and help us find a path forward.

Hopefully we avoid falling into the hands of those who wish to exploit our fears for their own purposes. Pathways of destruction can appear surprisingly attractive to those whose emotions have rattled reason or for whom pathways for managing fear are limited. But if we are fortunate, a good friend, a good boss, a good case manager and a good regulator will perform a more positive role as part of our social infrastructure. They help dissipate our fear and prevent it from disabling us at a time when we need our capacities at full strength.

This brings to light the question, what kinds of institutions and regulations do we need to help people manage their fear adaptively? Fear can be a very useful motivator if we can see a way of converting an unpleasant emotion into effective action. Indeed the whole of deterrence theory rests on this premise. For criminal justice and regulation experts, fear keeps us on the path of law abidingness and rule compliance.

We know, however, that too much fear is counterproductive in regulatory contexts. People can become “frozen” in their non-compliance. In our study of nursing home regulation, Toni Makkai and John Braithwaite found that in the case of directors of nursing who had low emotionality, perceived likelihood of deterrence predicted higher compliance as policymakers would expect. For those directors of nursing who displayed high emotionality, however, greater deterrence did not improve compliance.

The lesson for policy makers is to always try to mimic natural systems for mastering fear. Deterrence is an important part of our regulatory and justice systems. But equally important is not to leave people with fear and no pathway forward. Regulation involves persuasion and education to steer a pathway forward. Importantly, however, we need to believe in the pathway out of fear that is open to us – we need to believe it will bring benefits, is fair and consistent with our core beliefs. If we do not feel “right” about the pathway open to us, if we feel it is morally wrong or oppressive of our liberties, fear of being sanctioned by an authority is likely to turn to anger and defiance. Furthermore, we need to believe we are capable of doing what is required to follow the pathway. Confidence and a sense of efficacy are necessary to move beyond fear without being caught in the anger trap.

The notion of managing fear through providing support and finding positive pathways can be undervalued in the field of regulation. The public commonly see regulation as checks on our behaviour to make sure we conform to standards. Regulatory checks create fear. Regulators entrench that fear through having authority to issue forms of punishment. For some regulators, the doctrine of deterrence gives license for domination and crowds out encouragement to steer us down a more productive pathway. Regulatory interventions that start here are rarely effective, efficient and sustainable.

Unfortunately, our governance systems in many areas have fallen into the practice of domination to the exclusion of providing assistance. Fear of not being taken seriously or of losing control over those being regulated may well lie at the heart of this phenomenon. In these situations we witness institutional fear. Fear drives the behaviour of regulators. They think giving support makes them look weak or will undermine their legal case should matters proceed to court. Regulators also fear when they feel a lack of competence and confidence, and when they feel lack of respect from those they are regulating. Institutional fear spreads. Fear can be contagious. Those being regulated lose confidence that the regulators are reasonable and fair. The public loses confidence in everyone, including government more generally when they hear stories of unacceptable abuse, both by those supposedly being regulated and regulators. These are common 21st century problems for regulatory agencies.

There are many examples of how institutional protocols and policies serve to ignite fear rather than allay it, generating the kind of fear that disables us from recovery rather than empowering us to work our way out of our troubled state. Nowhere is this more so than in the treatment of Indigenous peoples where history’s legacy is one of fear of oppression and loss.

Australia continues to remove children from Aboriginal families for welfare reasons and incarcerate Aboriginal youth at alarmingly high rates. Growing up in welfare and getting into trouble with police are highly correlated. Aboriginal communities have every reason to feel vulnerable, unsupported, without a way forward that will keep their families intact.

Fear is writ large in this situation. Officials in the child protection and justice systems hold at times legitimate fears for the well-being of children and the safety of communities. They seek to impose order on unruly, unacceptable and harmful behaviour through formal legalistic procedures. These authorities, often spurred on by moral panic in the wider community, pay little heed to reflecting on their own fears and how such fears might be better managed. They use law to crack down on troublemakers and exert power, at times brutally, to establish control. Punishment crowds out a clear line of sight to a pathway forward.

In the meantime, Aboriginal communities respond to the white welfare and justice systems as history has taught them – with mistrust and resistance. They are at risk of further loss at the hands of the welfare and justice system, loss of children and of family. Their unspoken fears for their futures are as legitimate as the unspoken fears of authorities. From their perspective the pathway forward is equally unclear. Contact arouses greater fear of domination and loss. Withdrawal does not resolve the problem.

Protocols and procedures grounded in legal documents provide no space for these fears to be expressed and worked through among people who can listen to each other and build relationships of mutual respect and trust. Finding pathways forward depends on this kind of social infrastructure that bridges community and formal welfare and justice structures. More recent developments in restorative justice practices may prove useful in finding a more productive way to move beyond fear, enable healing and ultimately provide better care for Aboriginal children and families as well as those officials charged with enforcing law.

In the meantime, we should recognise that regulation need not be punitive. Order and security can be created through strengthening social bonds and forging pathways for new productive beginnings. Very likely success will depend on the courage of participants on both sides of the battlefield, and not everyone will pass this test. But one thing is certain. Courage to overcome one’s fears and find pathways forward can never be the new social norm while fear is used relentlessly to dominate and control, freezing us all in a rut of dysfunctionality.

Valerie Braithwaite is a Professor at RegNet specialising in psychological processes in regulation and governance.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet