Dealing with Danger: Threat Perception, Cognitive Processes, and Policy Preferences

My dissertation asks the question: why do individuals prefer some policies over others for dealing with a particular danger that concerns them?  I focus on the concerns people have for things that might be considered dangers to society as a whole, like immigration or climate change.

I argue that much of the variation in preferences for addressing threats can be explained by a cognitive process of threat classification not previously identified in the political psychology literature. This process is the core of Threat-Heuristic Theory (THT), an original theory I develop and test over several papers.  

My research shows that individuals mentally classify complex political threats – as threats of physical harm, threats to assets, and threats of contamination – and that these classifications predict which policies they will support for
countering the perceived threat.


Old Solutions To New Problems: An Introduction to Threat-Heuristic Theory

In this paper, I develop the framework of Threat-Heuristic Theory and present the evidence for THT’s core concept of threat classification from the fields of biology and cognitive science.  I present empirical evidence to illustrate how some issues - climate change, immigration, and fundamentalism, for example - qualify as complex threats.  That is, they are not consistently classified as being only a threat of physical harm or loss or contamination; rather they are interpreted as posing multiple risks.  I contrast these with the example of nuclear proliferation where respondents consistently rate the threat of physical harm as the most relevant consideration.  Given that there are some policy areas in which threat classification does vary, I outline a research agenda to test the theory's hypotheses about the relationship between threat classification and specific policy preferences for eliminating or managing a threat.

Working Paper (09/17/17 version)


Disaggregating Danger: Preferences for Immigration Reform in the U.S.

In this paper, I apply Threat-Heuristic Theory to the issue of anti-immigrant preferences in the U.S.  While some people do not consider immigrants a threat at all, others see a threat to physical safety (e.g., terrorism concerns), or a threat to economic assets (e.g., job loss); or a threat to values and culture.  I use two nationally diverse samples of U.S. adults to show that it is possible to predict specific preferences for immigration reform - favoring wall construction, for example - from an individual's classification of the threat posed by immigrants.

Working Paper (09/16/17 version)


Waging a War of Ideas: Countering Ideological Threats to American Security

My third paper, in progress, looks at how and why U.S. policy-makers have differed in their preferences for combating hostile ideologies.  I focus on two groups of policy-makers: individuals engaged in shaping formal statements of U.S. national security strategies towards (1) Communism in the early Cold War (1950-1953) and (2) Islamic fundamentalism after September 11, 2001.  I use original corpora of archival documents, memoirs, and speeches to establish an individual's classification of the same threat over time.  I use that data to predict preferences for specific features of U.S. national security strategies at key points in time.


I also have several projects extending the dissertation.  In work with Briony Swire-Thompson, we consider whether individuals who perceive immigrants as threats are (1) more likely to over-estimate their numbers and (2) less likely to accept information correcting their over-estimate.  In work with several co-authors, I examine relative neurological activation as a measure of implicit threat classification and its relationship to explicit measures and preferences for excluding certain social groups.  I also consider the spill-over effects of disease outbreaks for the detection and classification of unrelated political threats, including immigration concerns.

Outside the American context, I use data from the European Social Survey to apply Threat-Heuristic Theory's framework to anti-immigrant attitudes and threat perception in Europe.  I also am developing a comparative analysis of the use of contaminant imagery (e.g., rats) in visual propaganda.