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

My dissertation asks the question: what explains individual differences in the preference for countering a perceived threat? This question is central to some of the most heated and consequential debates in politics. These debates concern not only the detection of a threat (is there a problem?), but also what should be done to address the threat (how should we solve it?).

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 define the space of political behavior within which Threat-Heuristic Theory operates, present evidence for THT’s core framework, and lay out the theory’s main hypotheses. I present the evidence for THT’s core concept of threat classification from the fields of evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences.  I use data from two original studies to show that threat classification also occurs for contemporary, politically-relevant threats and to situate the concept of threat classification within political psychology more broadly.

A short video describing the theoretical framework can be found here. 

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

 
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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.