Dealing with Danger: Threat Perception 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 dangers.  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 problems.  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.

 
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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 restriction - favoring wall construction, for example - from an individual's classification of the threat posed by immigrants.

 
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Danger is what we make of it: the role of threat perception in shaping u.s. national security strategy

My third paper looks at how and why U.S. policy-makers have differed in their preferences for the specific measures to include in statements of U.S. national security strategy.  I focus on individuals engaged in shaping formal strategies towards countering (1) Communism in the early Cold War (1950-1953) and (2) international terrorism after September 11, 2001.  I use original corpora of archival documents, memoirs, and speeches to measure how an individual classified the threat in question over time.  I use that classification to predict preferences for specific features of U.S. national security strategies at key moments.  I show that Threat-Heuristic Theory provides a more comprehensive explanation of policy-maker preferences than existing theories.  I also show that significant events (e.g., the detonation of the first Soviet atomic bomb) and bureaucratic affiliation have limited and inconsistent effects on how a threat is conceptualized.

 

I also have several projects further exploring the implications of Threat-Heuristic Theory.  

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. 

During a post-doctoral fellowship year, I will investigate the neurological correlates of the theory.  I hypothesize that relative neurological activation can serve as a measure of implicit threat classification, which can be compared to explicit measures to understand the suppression and regulation of responses to feeling threatened.  I will test these hypotheses in an fMRI study I have designed under the supervision of Prof. Rebecca Saxe.  

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 propaganda.  I am also collecting data to estimate the spill-over effects of disease outbreaks for the portrayal of unrelated political threats in media.