How Fear Kills Your Willpower—And How to Fight Back

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The towers that stood as a symbol of the iconic New York City skyline were up in flames. 

People were jumping out of windows…

The streets were filled with emergency responders…

And almost 3,000 people died from the incident…

Even as a Canadian at the time, the images will forever be burned in my memory. And they justifiably instilled a sense of fear into millions of Americans. Americans who, unfortunately, would soon lose their lives.

Not because of the wars that followed…

Not because of another terrorist attack…

But by being afraid of flying and choosing to drive instead.

  • The chances of dying on a commercial flight is approximately 1 in 15,000,000.
  • The chances of dying from a road trip is approximately 1 in 10,000.

So when over 15 million Americans chose to drive instead of fly, it led to 1,595 deaths from car accidents that wouldn't have occurred if the people weren't afraid—a death toll equal to another tower going down. [1]


Terrorism and plane crashes are two of the most feared causes of death—and they are also two of the least justified.

Here are some yearly statics of what we fear vs. what actually kills us (U.S. statistics/year):

1. We fear—Planes: 50 deaths [2]

Bigger danger—Cars: 33,808 deaths [2]

2. We fear—Terrorism: 9 deaths [2]

Bigger danger—Heart Disease: 599,413 deaths [3]

3. We fear—Illegal Drugs: 17,000 all illegal drugs deaths combined [4]

Bigger danger—Alcohol: 88,000 alcohol-only related deaths [5]

4. We fear—Sharks: 1 death [2]

Bigger danger—Deer: 200 deaths [6]

5. We fear—Soldiers dying in war: 5,471 deaths [7]

Bigger danger—Soldiers committing suicide after war: 8,078 deaths [8] 

Some pretty shocking statistics.

Not that our fears aren't warranted, every example does have a risk of death, but why is there is such a huge gap between what we fear and the bigger danger?


In his book, The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner highlights many of these disparities and traces our fears back to the battle of our two minds—the primitive brain and the modern brain.

The primitive brain­—aka the limbic system—is where your emotions, feelings, and basic instincts reside. It evolved to help us humans survive in the Stone Age by motivating us to hunt for food, conserve our energy, and fear things that might kill us. 

These fears developed in a way that would cause us to act fast. In order to survive being attacked by a snake, for example, we would have to move quickly, without taking the time to think.

So rather than rely on rationality to avoid dangers, our brains evolved to connect fear with images, sounds, and feelings that we stored deep in our memories so we could rely on our instincts and act fast in order to survive.

Fast-forward to modern day, and our fears are still based in this part of our brain. So we still associate fear with images, with sounds, and with memories of the feelings we had when we saw these things. [1]


Given that we base our fears on images and feelings rather than on rationality, it is no surprise then that the media has played a big role in what we fear and what we don’t.

Every incident of terrorism is shown and analyzed by the media for days. But they don't show up to the hospital to report on the thousands who die of heart disease.

Every year there is a new illegal drug that the media calls an "epidemic." But they seldom cover the drug that actually is an epidemic—alcohol.

The same could be said for wars, plane crashes, and shark attacks.

Then when you're exposed to the vivid images of people dying from terrorism, plane crashes, and drug overdoses they become burned in your memory. And the more you expose yourself to them, the more deeply entrenched they become. 

Then because you can easily remember these images and associate them with the feeling of fear, you begin to believe that they are more prevalent and dangerous than they actually are. [9]


Okay, so you may fear these things, but how does that affect your willpower?

There are 3 key reasons why fear kills the willpower of both you and society:


The primitive brain is not only responsible for fear, it is responsible for cravings, for procrastination, and for pretty much every desire to indulge, give up, and take the easy way out. In order to override these desires, you use your willpower—which resides in the modern brain.

But the more you live in fear, the more you allow the primitive brain to be in control.

By watching the news, listening to fear mongering, and worrying about the future, you begin to strengthen the primitive brain.

Aside from making you even more afraid, this will also make you feel less in control of your ability to reach your goals. Simply by feeling as if you are powerless to control your destiny, you will begin to lose your willpower to take action towards it. [10]


In 2010, a group of researchers found something remarkable—MDMA (ecstasy) could be used to save lives. Specifically, it could be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is the main cause of the soldier suicides cited above.

In its first human trial, 83% of participants were cured through use of MDMA, compared to a 25% rate with traditional treatments. Combine that with the current soldier suicides cited above, and it's reasonable to say that MDMA could potentially save over 6,000 lives per year in the U.S. alone. [11]

But when we hear about ecstasy we think about all of the negative consequences of using “hard drugs." So our gut reaction tells us that the benefits can't possibly be worth the costs.

So despite its clear indication of success over traditional treatments, scientists were denied funding to continue this research by lawmakers who stuck by their claim that MDMA has no medical benefit. Which caused the leading researcher, David Nutt, to say:

“We haven’t seen a society dismiss science like this since the Catholic Church banned the telescope in the 1600s.” [12]

This same phenomenon happens on the individual level as well.

If you fear public speaking, you will downplay the benefits of sharing your ideas with an audience.

If you fear criticism, you will dismiss the benefits of sharing your work with others. 

If you fear being rejected, you will ignore the benefits of asking someone on a date.

It doesn't matter how great the benefit to yourself or society, the gut reaction of fear will cause you to irrationally dismiss it. [1]


The huge gap between what we fear and the larger danger has led us as a society and individuals to spend an insurmountable amount of time, energy, and resources on things that we fear, rather than those that we should fear. 

Trillions of tax dollars spent. 

Billions of man hours worked.

And countless time spent worrying about things that pose us less danger. 

One of the most important concepts in willpower is knowing where to focus it. Your time, money, and willpower are all finite resources. And given the data above about what you are likely afraid of, versus what you should be afraid of, you may exert your willpower on the wrong things.

From a strictly scientific standpoint you should:

  • Focus on eating right and exercising to fight heart disease, not worrying about terrorism.
  • Focus on getting on a plane, not worrying about crashes and choosing to drive instead.
  • Focus on being cautious of deer on the road, not on worrying about sharks in the water.

And if the goal truly is safety—both at the individual and societal level—then we should focus our willpower on the things that will result in the greatest amount of lives saved. Not on the things that give us the strongest emotional reactions.  [13

what to do about fear

"I'm just glad I'm old. I'm worried about what will happen to the world in your lifetime."

My stepdad told me those words in 2012, but I didn't understand why. By all major measures, 2012 was the best year in the history of the world. And 3 years later it has only gotten better!

Violent crime has steadily declined...

Global hunger continues to drop...

And the amount of people in extreme poverty is rapidly lowering!

Not to mention the advances in education, technology, and health that have taken place. By almost every measure, we are the healthiest, wealthiest society that has ever lived. We still have problems, of course, but there is more cause for optimism now than ever before. 

So why do my stepdad and countless other people think we're doomed?

Because fear sells—especially on the 24/7 news channels. There's no drama in the story of violent crimes going down. There's no intrigue in the plummeting cost of education thanks to the Internet. Even as an optimist about the future, I would be bored by those stories.

So we get stories of crime creeping into safe neighborhoods...

Announcements of new drug epidemics that endanger your children...

And a new cause of cancer that could be in one of your household items!

Do not let these stories kill your willpower.

Instead, understand how fear works. The more you take in the images, sounds, and feelings of terrible things happening in the world, the more you will allow fear to strengthen your primitive brain and weaken your willpower. [1]

I'm not saying you should ignore current events, or deny the brutal facts of dangers in the world. 

Simply pause, recognize the negative bias, understand that fear will weaken your willpower, and remember that, in general, the world is heading in a very positive direction. Then allow yourself to feel grateful that you get to be a part of it. 


There is a gap between what we fear and what we should fear. This gap is due to where your fear comes from. Your fear comes from images, sounds, and feelings—not rational thought. 

Fear kills your willpower by giving control to your primitive brain, diminishing the benefits of something you fear, and by causing you to focus your willpower on the wrong things. 

You can fight back against fear by avoiding scare stories, understanding the negative bias of the media, and remembering that you are living in the healthiest, wealthiest time in the history of mankind—and it is only getting better.