Some recent polling has reconfirmed a trend that has been taking place fairly steadily since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: We are feeling more and more unsafe and are worried another terrorist attack might occur. Some people might consider these findings to be counterintuitive given the extent to which the government has stepped up its effort to fight terrorism over the past decade. But according to the principles of social psychology, it makes perfect sense. While there are hundreds of reasons that, in combination, have led us to this point, there are only a handful of psychological factors that have led us to this state of heightened insecurity.
Accessibility: This may seem commonsensical, but when we make a decision or engage in a behavior, it is due largely to what was most recently on our mind. If something comes to mind easily, or is at the forefront of our thoughts, we are more likely to use that information to shape our subsequent decisions and behaviors. Fortunately or not, we have little control over things in our environment that help determine what is most accessible in our own minds. And one of the more powerful forces in our environment is the media. What the media covers and how it frames its coverage has a huge impact on our thoughts, including our experience of feeling threatened.
Existential Threat: One type of thought that is almost always accessible, whether we realize it or not, is existential threat. We have fundamental psychological motivations that have developed over our evolution. Among these are motivations for control (over the world around us) and for (real or symbolic) immortality. When we see a world out of control or when our mortality is made salient, we experience fear and anxiety, aka existential threat.
Time: How close or how far we are in time from some event shapes our perceptions of probability and risk. Think about a coin being flipped. On any given flip, the odds are 50/50 that it will turn up either heads or tails. The more a single side (e.g., heads) comes up in successive flips, however, the more likely people think it will be that the other side (e.g., tails) is “due” to come up and the more they are likely to bet on this occurrence. Their perceptions of both probability and risk are skewed primarily because of a cognitive heuristic (i.e., mental shortcut) that makes them think that because an event has not occurred in a while, it is “due” to occur soon. The same heuristic plays a role in our perception of the likelihood of a terrorist attack.
Motivated Reasoning: Do you consider yourself to be more liberal or conservative? Well, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, your partisan preferences distort your thoughts. One of the primary ways this occurs is through a form of motivated reasoning — when a desired or expected outcome skews our reasoning process, motivating us to seek out and accept information that is consistent with and avoid ignore information that is inconsistent with that desired or expected outcome. This can be seen as we follow the trend of increased insecurity over time after 9/11. In 2004, when a Republican was president, 69% of Republicans felt safer than before 9/11, but only 18% of Democrats felt the same way. Now in 2013, when a Democrat is president, 33% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats feel safer than before 9/11. Combine this with the totals for independents and we see a downward shift in feelings of security of 7% just because the party of the White House occupant changed.
When weighing the actual risks of terrorism we need to consider both the likelihood and impact of a terrorist attack taking place. Fortunately, the likelihood of a terrorist attack killing you or I is extremely low. But the severity of an attack, should it occur, is increasing. Well-respected RAND terrorism researcher Brian Michael Jenkins famously said, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Many terrorist groups now have the explicit goal of killing as many people as possible. So while most people certainly worry far too much about terrorism in general, it’s not a subject we should just ignore, especially while the likelihood of severe attacks is increasing.
But, as a researcher of terrorism myself, perhaps I’m just a little biased.