A war of biases

Here’s an interesting take on terrorism as a fundamentally audience-focused activity that relies on causing fear to achieve political ends and whether citizen-led community monitoring schemes actually serve to amplify the effects rather than make us feel safer.

It’s from an article just published in Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology by political scientist Alex Braithwaite:

A long-held premise in the literature on terrorism is that the provocation of a sense of fear within a mass population is the mechanism linking motivations for the use of violence with the anticipated outcome of policy change. This assumption is the pivot point upon and around which most theories of terrorism rest and revolve. Martha Crenshaw, for instance, claims, the ‘political effectiveness of terrorism is importantly determined by the psychological effects of violence on audiences’…

Terrorists prioritize communication of an exaggerated sense of their ability to do harm. They do this by attempting to convince the population that their government is unable to protect them. It follows, then, that any attempt at improving security policy ought to center upon gaining a better understanding of the factors that affect public perceptions of security.

States with at least minimal historical experience of terrorism typically implore their citizens to participate actively in the task of monitoring streets, buildings, transportation, and task them with reporting suspicious activities and behaviors… I argue that if there is evidence to suggest that such approaches meaningfully improve state security this evidence is not widely available and that, moreover, such approaches are likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate public fear.

In the article, Braithwaite presents evidence that terrorist attacks genuinely do exaggerate our fear of danger by examining opinion polls close to terrorist attacks.

For example, after 9/11 a Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans reported believing that “further acts of terrorism are somewhat or very likely in the coming weeks” while 56% “worried that they or a member of their family will become victim of a terrorist attack”.

With regard to community monitoring and reporting schemes (‘Call us if you see anything suspicious in your neighbourhood’) Braithwaite notes that there is no solid evidence that they make us physically safer. But unfortunately, there isn’t any hard evidence to suggest that they make us more fearful either.

In fact, you could just as easily argue that even if they are useless, they might build confidence due to the illusion of control where we feel like we are having an effect on external events simply because we are participating.

It may be, of course, that authorities don’t publish the effectiveness figures for community monitoring schemes because even if they do genuinely make a difference, terrorists might have the same difficulty as the public and over-estimate their effectiveness.

Perhaps the war on terror is being fought with cognitive biases.

Link to locked academic article on fear and terrorism.

5 thoughts on “A war of biases”

  1. I wouldn’t say Braithwaite uncovered anything groundbreaking with his discovery that attacks exaggerate the public’s fear of danger; anyone familiar with availability bias would know that this would be the case.

    The week after the London bombings, The Daily Show in the US parodied this very well, mocking the cable news network coverage of attacks with a fake a poll in which, after a week of alarmist reporting, 100 percent of respndents cr*pped themselves in fear of a similar attack happening in the US.

    As an interesting aside, there was a significant increase in road accidents the year following 9/11 as people chose to drive rather than fly; the additional number of deaths was greater than the number of people who lost their lives that day.

    1. There was a significant increase in deaths from driving the year after 9/11. An this can probably be attributed to an increased fear of flying. But the additional number of deaths was probably not as you write “greater than the number of people who lost their lives that day”.

      What Gigerenzer, who did a study on this (http://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/volltexte/institut/dok/full/gg/GG_Dread_2004.pdf), said was that “the number of Americans who lost their lives on the road by avoiding the risk of flying was higher than the total number of passengers killed on the four fatal flights”. In other words, he isn´t referring to the total death toll of 9/11 (which is much higher, about 3000), but only to the people on the planes (about 300).

  2. How fascinating. I don’t know how prevalent are those “If you see something, say something” signs but it looks like paranoia is more widespread. In 2009 our soil class went into a wooded park with backpacks and shovels (I don’t think the professor alerted anyone). We split into groups; 20 minutes later an officer with his hand on his gun came trotting down the hill. Luckily we sorted it out but obviously one of the park visitors we passed called the police.

    Also we now have those “Amber Alerts”. Which seems great but makes me nervous now every time a child looks uncomfortable with an adult.

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