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 project. 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 paper “Old Solutions to New Problems,” I develop Threat-Heuristic Theory (THT), present evidence for its fundamental concepts from biology and cognitive science, and illustrate its distinctiveness from previously established political and psychological constructs using experimental and observational data. THT’s primary contribution is to introduce the concept of threat classification, a rapid, unconscious mental process by which dangers are parsed into categories - as threats of physical harm, threats of loss, and threats of contamination - each with an evolved response strategy. I present evidence that some dangers, including immigration and climate change, are complex in that they are not consistently classified as posing only one kind of threat.
"Old Solutions to New Problems: An Introduction to Threat-Heuristic Theory" (working paper, June 2018 version)
Domestic policy/citizen preferences
To test the theory's relative explanatory power, I apply Threat-Heuristic Theory to the issue of immigration reform in the U.S. Using two nationally diverse samples of adults, I show that the theory can predict support for specific forms of immigration restriction - favoring wall construction, for example - based on an individual's classification of immigration as a threat. This represents an improvement over existing theories, which focus only on explaining high-level pro- or anti-immigrant sentiment.
foreign policy/elite preferences
I explore the implications of THT for individual policy-makers in two cases of national security strategy development, countering: (1) communism during the early Cold War (1950-1953) and (2) international terrorism after September 11, 2001. I use original corpora of archival texts to measure how an individual classified the threat in question over time and demonstrate that prior classification can be used to predict preferences for specific features of the national security strategies developed in later periods.
The cognitive science research on which THT is based suggests there may be neural correlates of threat classification. I am investigating this possibility using fMRI to answer two primary questions: (1) do explicit and implicit measures of threat classification correspond for sensitive topics/targets? (2) is one a better predictor of policy preferences than the other?
Perspective-taking & empathetic accuracy
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, however, calls this ability into question. Using experimental data, I test the accuracy of those who are not concerned about two possible dangers (immigration and climate change) in imagining the threat classifications and emotional responses of those who are concerned. Issue-level variation in accuracy may have implications for the tenor and content of policy debates.
misperception & false beliefs
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 this over-estimation.
Outside the American context, I am examining anti-immigrant threat perception in Europe and beginning a comparative analysis of contaminant imagery (e.g., rats) in visual war-time propaganda.