Fear of strangers

Fear of strangers is a component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an emotion rooted in our mind because it has the advantage of knowing ourselves better, of self-defining ourselves, and the reassurance of belonging to a group in which to feel protected.

This feeling follows the natural cognitive process of ‘categorization’, a process of simplifying the complexity that surrounds us and with which we divide the external world into mental categories.

Scholars believe that the refusal of the different also derives from the activation of mechanisms rooted in the biological defense from external threats, which protects us, for example, from new infectious agents against which our body is not protected. It follows that the foreigner is easily perceived as a threat to one’s physical and social integrity.

Both the rejection of the different and the opposite position of total brotherhood are considered as attitudes that prevent a constructive confrontation between the self and the other, an indispensable confrontation for a constructive demolition of socio-cultural barriers between populations1.

Early onset

Researchers tell us that infants who show intense negative reactions towards strangers are more likely to become shy and socially anxious adults. Furthermore, infants who fail to evaluate the approach of a stranger based on contextual factors are most at risk for the development of anxiety disorders later in life. Already in the first year of life, they develop fear of strangers more easily if the mother has anxious behaviors2. The genetic component also plays a role that has not yet been quantified.

As a child, I encountered diversity twice: when, at age 5, my parents found a home in Mea Shearim, Israel’s most religious ward. Together with my father, we were the only ones without the kippah or black hat on the head, the side curls, the long beard and the gull. At the age of 7, I was catapulted to Trieste, to my grandparents, alone and for a year. Here the diversity consisted mainly of an unknown language, with its different characters which, moreover, flowed strangely from left to right. Who knows if these early encounters with the different influenced my perception of relationships between groups as an adult.

Stereotypes

We are all led to evaluate a social group on the basis of stereotypes. Stereotypes are simplified images of the members of a group; when applied to ‘others’ they are often derogatory. Stereotypes may arise from the need of groups to attribute the cause of unpleasant events to an external group, already the target of stereotypes that seem to be suitable for assuming the role of culprits of such events.

Stereotypes hardly change and some are acquired early, from childhood. Nick Haslam pointed out that, in some situations, the fundamental attribution error can take an extreme form called ‘essentialism’. Essentialism becomes problematic especially when it leads people to attribute negative stereotypes regarding an external group to essential and immutable qualities of the personality of its members.

Stereotypes, which arise from our mind’s need to simplify, easily feed into prejudice. These, when they are morally accepted and legally approved by the society, can lead to mass discrimination behaviors3.

Aggression

Fear of the different is accompanied by aggression. It is well documented that when children watched an adult behave aggressively in any condition, they later behave more aggressively.

Graphic representations of violence in the media can also significantly influence children’s future behavior. This phenomenon also seems to derive from ‘desensitization’, that is, from a strong reduction in a person’s sensitivity to material that usually causes a strong emotional reaction. Parents should know that an aggressive sequence established in childhood tends to persist3.

Racism

Racism is a very common form of aversion to the different. It is rooted in the psychology of the individual, but today it is considered rather the result of the cultural beliefs of one’s own group. In fact, individuals form the culture and culture forms the individual. The racist mentality can derive from multiple psychological aspects, including personal insecurity, fear of being different, lack of compassion, the projection of one’s self-esteem towards others, and some personality disorders such as paranoia and narcissism4.

Is it possible to reduce intergroup conflict?

In response to this question, scholars tell us that, since prejudices are partly based on ignorance, an education that promotes tolerance for the different can reduce mental closure, especially in children. It follows that fostering interactions between opposing groups will improve intergroup relations and reduce prejudice and discrimination3. In this regard, I refer the reader to my article on “Empathy, oxytocin and adolescence”.

I find the thought of the contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Levinas particularly interesting. The philosopher hopes for the birth of a new humanism, the humanism of otherness, as opposed to the humanism of identity. Otherness, says Levinas, is the capacity for openness towards the different, in contrast to the dominant thought that legitimizes the reasons for identity and dominance over others, to the point of recognizing the reasons for the war5.

Allow me to conclude with a self-quotation: “I felt a certain bewilderment. I wondered who I was, where I lived, what my roots were. I did not find the answer clear inside. But did it really have to belong to someone or something? What are roots, traditions, nations and religions for, the many tribes in which humanity is divided and which are in eternal struggle and competition? As an illusory protection from our fragility and from the substantial loneliness of life and death? Is it not enough to belong to the Earth, basically so small, as a common mother to be accountable to and to live with? “6.

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  1. Emilia Biviano – In-Psychology – 11 Luglio 2019
  2. Brooker R.J. et al. – The development of stranger fear in infancy and toddlerhood: Normative development, individual differences, antecedents, and outcomes. Dev Sci. 2013 Nov;16(6):864-78. 
  3. Michael et al. – Psicologia sociale. Teorie applicazioni. Pearson 2016   
  4. Arlin CuncicThe Psychology of Racism – Verywell mind, February 2022 
  5. Susan Petrilli The Law Challenged and the Critique of Identity with Emmanuel Levinas, Int J Semiot Law. 2021 May 30 : 1–39.
  6. Nathan LeviLa cinese di Maputo, a novel published by Tresogni, 2014. Pag 140-1.

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