My dissertation project develops and tests Threat-Heuristic Theory, a theory of political threat perception and mitigation. I develop this theory at the individual level and test it on both elite policy-makers and ordinary citizens across several paper-length projects.
I use findings from psychology, biology, and neuroscience to develop a framework that disaggregates the general term "threat" into analytic categories based on the types of threats humans have evolved to distinguish, and which trigger different behavioral mitigation strategies. Specifically, I focus on threats of physical harm, threats of resource and asset loss, and threats of contamination.
I apply this framework to issues within politics that are often framed as "threats": hostile ideologies, specific group identities, and the phenomenon of immigration into the United States. In each case, the outcome of interest is an individual's policy preference for mitigating the threat (including the view that a threat is not present). The independent variable of interest is the individual's assessment and categorization of the threat (see theory video below for further explanation).
Each paper within the project uses different tools to measure how and when an individual assesses a threat, including: historical case studies and archival data; text analysis, specifically metaphor recruitment; survey experiments; and neurological response patterns (fMRI).
"Disaggregating Danger: Threat-Heuristic Theory and American Immigration Policy Preferences"
Immigration reform has been a contentious topic for many years, but recently the breadth of policy options has expanded to include less conventional measures (e.g., border walls). I examine variation in the perceived types of threats posed by immigrants to the United States among nationally representative samples of Americans and their preferences for immigration policy reform. I use data from two original survey experiments to test the relationship between threat assessment and policy preferences, including wall endorsement. I vary immigrant region of origin to understand how sensitive threat assessment is to this information. I also test threat assessment sensitivity to disgust priming, as well the links threat assessment, fear, and disgust-sensitivity. The primary purpose of this project is to establish the relative strength of threat assessments in predicting preferences for immigration policies, when compared to standard demographic and ideological variables.
"Ideological Threats to American Security: Preferences for Combating Communism (1947-1953) and Radical Islam (present day)"
American policy-maker preferences for mitigating ideological threats have been characterized as inflated and aggressive. In the context of Threat-Heuristic Theory, however, extreme policies can be logically consistent, if still highly problematic. I digitize and code a new corpus documents generated by policy-makers during the early Cold War to demonstrate the links between threat assessment and policy preferences. Specifically, I analyze the texts generated by individual policy makers over time to quantify their assessment of the Communist threat in language, particularly in metaphor. I then use this data to predict later preferences for policies to include in statements of national security strategy (e.g., NSC-68). I supplement the Cold War case with analysis of contemporary language on the issue of "Radical Islam". The purpose of this project is to demonstrate the theory's applicability to policy-making elites and demonstrate a relatively simple application of the theory to linguistic data.
"Identity, Threat Assessment, and Policy Preferences for Social Exclusion"
Some social groups have been targeted by formal policies of social exclusion, including segregation and now so-called "bathroom laws." Other groups have been targeted by policies of preemption, including "stop-and-frisk" and travel bans. Those who endorse these policies often cite concerns for physical safety as justification. However, it is not clear whether such concerns are genuinely held, or simply viewed as socially acceptable. My collaborators, Emile Bruneau (a neuroscientist at UPenn) and Yoel Inbar (a psychologists at the University of Toronto) and I are designing an fMRI experiment to measure implicit (neurological) responses to specific out-groups associated with exclusionary policies. We compare these implicit responses to explicit assessments of the threats posed by those groups, as well as to endorsements of social policies directed towards those groups. The purpose of this project is to test whether implicit or explicit threat measures are better (or equivalent) predictors of policy endorsement, which has implications for our understanding of policy preference formation, measurement, and opportunities for persuasion.
A (very) short video describing my theoretical framework can be found here.
Other ongoing research projects are listed below.
“Reconciling the Very Long and the Very Short: Applying an Evolutionary Perspective to Contemporary Political Behavior.” (Conference Presentation)
“Understanding the Effects of Narratives in Experimental and Observational Research: A Literature Review.” (Working Paper)
“High Stakes and Low Bars: International Recognition of Governments during Civil War” (under review)
“The Paradox of Revolutions: How Can We Isolate the Causal Effects of Transformative Events?” (Working Paper with Kai Thaler, Harvard)