a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Fear works. What works better?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 5th, 2004

A Discovery Channel bulletin last month described an interesting psychological experiment:

In an experiment by researchers Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Mark Landau and Tom Pyszczynski, a group of students was asked to think about its own death and another group to think about a non-death-related topic. Then the students were asked to read campaign statements of three hypothetical political candidates. Each candidate had a different leadership style: charismatic, task-oriented or relationship-oriented.

A charismatic leader, explain the researchers, is one who emphasizes a simple message of the greatness of the nation and of a heroic triumph of good over evil.

The students who were reminded of their own mortality before reading the campaign materials were almost eight times more likely to vote for the charismatic candidate — regardless of where they rated themselves on the political spectrum. There was no increase for the two other candidates. (via Smijer)

Bruce Schneier’s analysis of DHS terror alert warnings, “How long can the country stay scared?,” is worth mentioning here as well:

The DHS’s incessant warnings against any and every possible method of terrorist attack has nothing to do with security, and everything to do with politics. In 2002, Republican strategist Karl Rove instructed Republican legislators to make terrorism the mainstay of their campaign. Study after study has shown that Americans worried about terrorism are more likely to vote Republican. Strength in the face of the terrorist threat is the basis of Bush’s reelection campaign. (via Jens Scholz)

Schneier points out that even Israel, which sees a lot of terror attacks, doesn’t issue vague warnings of the ‘yellow/orange/red’ variety, and favors ‘behind the scenes’ police work out of the public eye. He may be right, but I’d prefer not just feeling like a passive potential victim. A possible, if fairly vague alternative is the “pack, not a herd” notion coined by Jim Henley — who doesn’t mean snooping on neighbors with it either, and is aware of the vigilantism problem “packs” might invite. Henley coined his term in the context of the DC sniper attacks,; he was rightly taking issue with law enforcement secretiveness:

Diffuse [the responsibility for our safety] . Give us the information and the tools to better defend ourselves. Tell us what you know. […]

…Don’t keep us a herd. Make us a pack. Tell us what we need to know.

On the other hand, I agree with Chad Orzel as well that it’s not just vigilantism, but state-sponsored vigilantism that’s just around the corner with this kind of stuff — and state and vigilantes can reinforce eachother. (E.g., Interahamwe — “those who stand together” — which arguably took ‘pack, not a herd’ to one kind of murderous extreme.) I hasten to add that Henley has nothing at all like this in mind, of course, saying for instance “If ‘a pack, not a herd’ ends up making us less like citizens and more like a barracks, I want no part of it.” But if the notion is certain or even just likely to head in the barracks direction or worse, its attractions don’t outweigh its drawbacks.

Meanwhile, without giving up on the “pack” idea, there’s an even simpler alternative for the government: “don’t just do something, stand there.” The color code alert system should be scrapped in favor of some grown-up discussion about security and sensible precautions individuals can take.* If specific terrorist targets and plans become known, specific warnings and countermeasures can be publicized. The DHS alert system, by contrast, is just a “CYA” crock that’s more for the administration’s good (whichever administration that turns out to be) than the public’s.


* I don’t endorse or pretend to have read every recommendation you will find here. It does seem to me a good place to start; other suggestions are welcome.

UPDATES: More preparedness links: (9/5)The America Prepared Campaign – Get Prepared web page; DHS/ Get a Kit site

One Response to “Fear works. What works better?”

  1. » Blog Archive » 9/11, the salience of mortality, and the future of American democracy Says:

    […] I first wrote about Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon in August, 2004: “Fear works. What works better?” A documentary — “Flight From Death: A Quest for Immortality” — has […]

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