I am not afraid. I am liberal. These are related.

Really interesting piece in the Atlantic on the latest social science research on politics and fear:

Well, not quite. According to a study slated to be published in the journal Psychological Science, it might be true that conservatives are more likely to fall for false, threatening-seeming information, but it’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they’re hyper-attuned to hazards in their world. If they spot a sign of danger, they figure trusting it is better than ignoring it…

Daniel Fessler, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, led a study in which two sets of subjects read a series of 16 statements, most of which were false, but all of which sounded like they could be true. Some of them focused more on the (fake) benefits of doing something, such as “Exercising on an empty stomach burns more calories,” while others focused on risks, such as, “terrorist attacks in the U.S. have increased since Sept 11, 2001.”

The researchers had the subjects rate how true they believed the statements were. Then, he assessed how “liberal” or “conservative” they were, asking them whether they believed “society works better when people live according to traditional values,” for example, or whether they “agree” with topics like pornography or school prayer, and of course, whether they actually identify as a Republican or Democrat.

There was no difference when it came to the “beneficial” statements—conservatives and liberals were equally likely to believe those. But the researchers found that compared to the liberals, conservative participants were more likely to believe the statements about hazards. And surprisingly, this difference was driven by their views on social issues, such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Economic issues, such as a fondness for tax cuts, didn’t make a difference. “Fiscal conservatism is not about traditionalism,” Fessler said. “It’s an accident of American politics that [social and fiscal conservatism] happen to be stuck together” in the same party… [emphases mine]

But several studies show that conservatives tend to be more sensitive to the possibility of danger than liberals are. That helps explain why conservatives endorse policies that minimize the introduction of new, potentially harmful influences to society, like immigration, gay marriage, or comprehensive sex education. “Conservatives approach the situation from the start with greater reactivity to threat, a greater prior belief to the level of danger in the world, so it is logical for the conservative to take more seriously information about hazards than the liberal does,” Fessler told me.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: When there are real threats, this reflex would help people stay safe. It’s just that when the threats are made up or exaggerated—as they were in so many fake news stories before the election or in many of Trump’s tweets—people can be misled.

A-ha!  And there you go.  Forget fake news, the key is when threats are exaggerated.  This is exactly what we are talking about.  And, here, as many have pointed out time and time again, the “threats” from immigrants and terrorists are really quite minor (really, you should fear vending machines far more).  Bill Ayers on that point:

As a security studies scholar, let me put this in clear terms: there is not a shred of evidence that the United States is any more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from abroad than it ever has been, and plenty to suggest that we are safer than at any point in our history. There is also no way of defending the assertion that Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat to the United States, or that it even ought to be on the list of top US national security priorities. We are afraid of terrorism only because we’ve been told we should be.

The easiest way to see the truth, of course, is to look at the statistics. Violence of any kind – never mind terrorist violence – doesn’t even make the top 15 list of causes of death in the US, and has been in long-term secular decline (as have death rates in general). Any given American’s odds of being killed or injured by a terrorist are almost infinitesimally small, and the odds of a terrorist attack of any kind happening on US soil on any given day – or even in any given month – are likewise extremely small. The list of things you are more likely to encounter than a terrorist is vast.

The fact is that, of things that threaten Americans’ lives and way of life, terrorism just doesn’t make the list. It is, in reality, just not that important. Are we 100% free of terrorist risk? Of course not – and we never will be. There is no set of rules, no border restrictions, no “extreme vetting” procedures that will ever eliminate that risk. And at this point, the risk is so low that any efforts to improve procedures – however well-considered and well-implemented – will only lower the risk level by an almost immeasurably small amount. When you’re that close to zero, it’s hard to get closer.

Why, then, are so many Americans concerned about terrorism? Why are even Senate Democrats unwilling to question the underlying logic of Trump’s executive order, which amounts to “desperate times call for desperate measures”? Because we have all been gaslit on this. The lie has been repeated so many times that it has become the truth.

Yes, why are people so irrationally fearful.  Because you’ve got a whole media apparatus (here’s looking at you, Fox and friends) and now the damn president, constantly telling people they need to be afraid.  And for conservatives, especially, this sends a powerful cue.

And, from Pew, we can see the data on just how well this works on conservatives:

According to any semi-rational expert on terrorism or national security there is simply no way that the refugees present a “major threat” or else major and threat don’t mean what people think they do (inconceivable!).


So, sure there’s things I’m afraid of, but I like to think (and I think I’m right) that my fears are at least rational.  The problem with conservative is not that they are more fearful.  Appropriately fearful is a good thing and certainly makes evolutionary sense.  The problem we have now is that so many conservatives are irrationally fearful of threats that really aren’t worth all the fear.  And that is massively distorting our politics.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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