Threat perception - the conscious or unconscious estimation that something or someone is dangerous - is a basic mental faculty. Political science has long acknowledged that perceived danger can motivate politically relevant behavior and attitudes. But existing theories only partially integrate findings from biology and cognitive science regarding the processing of danger in the mind and brain. The result is an incomplete, and sometimes misleading, picture of the relationship between threat perception and political behavior.
In this project, I developed and continue to test a theory of the cognitive processes that are engaged when individuals are confronted with potential dangers. The over-arching question I investigate is: why do individuals prefer some policies over others for dealing with a particular danger that concerns them? To answer this question, I developed Threat-Heuristic Theory (THT), which links the way in which dangers are mentally processed to the preferences individuals have for mitigating them, including preferences for specific public policies. THT's mechanisms are species-typical features of the human mind, which enables me to test the theory's explanatory power in both ordinary citizens and political elites.
Originally structured as a three-paper dissertation ("Dealing with Danger: Threat Perception and Policy Preferences") with a number of extensions, I am now in the process of developing several stand-alone papers, as well as a book manuscript. I will make elements of the project available here as and when I can. Please contact me if you are interested in material not currently posted.
theory & foundations
In the working paper “Threat-Heuristic Theory: A New Model of Threat Perception and Policy Preferences” (submitted; an older version is available here), I develop Threat-Heuristic Theory (THT). I first introduce findings from biology and cognitive science regarding the physiological and psychological systems humans have for detecting and responding to different kinds of potential harms in their environment. These potential harms include: physical violence (from humans, predators, and accidents), loss of material and non-material assets, and literal and imagined contamination. I then build a model of the mental processes linking the perception of something as dangerous to specific preferences for how that danger should be mitigated. Because dangers at the scale of large groups and societies require coordination, these danger-mitigating preferences manifest as support for certain public policies. Policy preferences are the theory’s dependent variable. The independent variable is threat classification - the rapid, unconscious mental process by which dangers are parsed as being threats of physical harm, threats of loss, or threats of contamination. I argue that some issues, including immigration, climate change and fundamentalism, constitute complex dangers, because they are perceived as posing more than one kind of potential harm.
foreign policY implications
One of the most consequential domains in which subjective threat perception affects policy-making is in the formulation of national security strategy. A major focus of my research is to better explain individual decision-makers’ preferences for how to deal with a particular kind of national security problem: hostile ideologies. The dangers posed by ideologies - and the “wars of ideas” waged to defeat them - are a recurring theme in American foreign policy. This project focuses on two eras of policy-making: (1) the early Cold War (1947-1953), when strategies were developed to contend with communism; and (2) the period following September 11, 2001, when both “international terrorism” and Islamic fundamentalism were focal points of U.S. national security strategy. I use an original corpus of Cold War documents from six archives, publicly available speech and text data, memoirs, and interviews to investigate quantitatively and qualitatively how policy makers classified ideological threats to American security and whether that classification affected their preferences for specific elements of national security strategy.
The cognitive science research on which THT is based suggests there may be neural correlates of threat classification. I designed and ran an fMRI study to investigate this possibility. I collected data from 50 subjects and am currently analyzing it.
Immigration policy preferences
I illustrate the theory’s utility with the issue of immigration reform preferences in the U.S. While the current literature focuses on explaining pro- versus anti-immigration preferences, I show that THT can provide an explanation not only for whether immigration should be restricted but also for how it should be restricted. In two studies using nationally diverse samples of U.S. adults, I show that threat classification predicts support for specific forms of immigration restriction over others - favoring wall construction rather than visa limits, for example.
Many theories of bargaining rely on the assumption that individuals can accurately imagine the concerns of others, even if they do not share those concerns. THT points to one potential source of inaccuracy in this sort of exercise: the inability to accurately estimate how another person has classified a potential harm. I test perspective-taking accuracy with respect to two potential harms (immigration and climate change), as well as a manipulation intended to improve it. I find that perspective-taking accuracy among most-similar individuals in near-ideal conditions is still modest (~60%) and manipulations to improve accuracy have heterogeneous effects. Overall, the findings suggest we should not assume this exercise is something individuals do well.
misperception & false beliefs
Research into both visual and imagined perception of dangerous stimuli suggests that estimates of size become distorted for some types of threats, but not others. In work with Briony Swire-Thompson, we consider whether individuals who perceive immigrants as different kinds of threats also differ in their: (1) over-estimation of the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. and (2) in their acceptance of information correcting this over-estimation.