Security Perception: Fear vs Anger
If you’re fearful, you think you’re more at risk than if you’re angry:
In the aftermath of September 11th, we realized that, tragically, we were presented with an opportunity to find out whether our lab research could predict how the country as a whole would react to the attacks and how U.S. citizens would perceive future risks of terrorism. We did a nationwide field experiment, the first of its kind. As opposed to the participants in our lab studies, the participants in our nationwide field study did have strong feelings about the issues at stake — September 11th and possible future attacks — and they also had a lot of information about these issues as well. We wondered whether the same emotional carryover that we found in our lab studies would occur — whether fear and anger would still have opposing effects.
In pilot tests, we identified some media coverage of the attacks (video clips) that triggered a sense of fear, and some coverage that triggered a sense of anger. We randomly assigned participants from around the country to be exposed to one of those two conditions — media reports that were known to trigger fear or reports that were known to trigger anger. Next, we asked participants to predict how much risk, if any, they perceived in a variety of different events. For example, they were asked to predict the likelihood of another terrorist attack on the United States within the following 12 months and whether they themselves expected to be victims of potential future attacks. They made many other risk judgments about themselves, the country, and the world as a whole. They also rated their policy preferences.
The results mirrored those of our lab studies. Specifically, people who saw the anger-inducing video clip were subsequently more optimistic on a whole series of judgments about the future — their own future, the country’s future, and the future of the world. In contrast, the people who saw the fear-inducing video clip were less optimistic about their own future, the country’s future, and the world’s future. Policy preferences also differed as a function of exposure to the different media/emotion conditions. Participants who saw the fear-inducing clip subsequently endorsed less aggressive and more conciliatory policies than did participants who saw the anger-inducing clip, even though the clip was only a few minutes long and participants had had weeks to form their own policy opinions regarding responses to terrorism.
So, to summarize: we should not be fearful of future terrorist attacks, we should be angry that our government has done such a poor job safeguarding our liberties. And that if we take this second approach, we are more likely to respond effectively to future terrorist attacks.