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.

Posted on March 23, 2008 at 12:42 PM • 30 Comments

Comments

Ken HaglerMarch 23, 2008 1:54 PM

The summary does not follow from the quote, unless you really believe that more agressive and less conciliatory policies are actually a more effective response to terrorist attacks. (Because that's been working out _so_ well thus far...)

AnonymousMarch 23, 2008 2:52 PM

He isn't saying our policies should be more angry/aggressive. He is saying we should be angry at government officials that do an excellent job at taking away our liberties and such a poor job of actually mitigating terrorism.

ZaD MoFoMarch 23, 2008 3:12 PM

Fear is a direct consequence of ignorance.
You dont fear what you know.
The unexpected need time to understand - to gather knowledge about it. Does terror is such in a same way the result of our ignorance?
Fear is a communicative abstraction. TV sets are fear communication technologies. My point here is that if I want to know exactly what is all about a certain information, thoses who live it are better to consult than thoses who relayed them to us. The medias have overdun ther job... There not trustfull as they should be anymore.

pfoggMarch 23, 2008 3:28 PM

"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"...

I assume that was intended as irony, since it appears to me that some people are trying just such an exchange, but the study doesn't suggest it would work. The research involved a trade-off between fear and anger of the same thing -- 9/11 coverage -- not anger at one thing driving out fear of another. In the former case, the anger probably pops up instead of the fear (since the associations are to the same thing), while in the latter case, wouldn't the relief be temporary? And once one target of anger was dealt with, wouldn't one need another, and another, to keep the fear submerged?

To apply this research to terrorism would involve encouraging a fierce anger directly at the perceived threat, but the threat is vague enough that there's no clear target for either anger or fear, so both can readily lead to action against innocent parties.

Regardless, I doubt that anger is a better basis for policy than fear, outrage, envy, or any other strong passion unconstrained by reason.

Amos NewcombeMarch 23, 2008 3:41 PM

"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"

This seems a little glib. I would think that the response generated by a given clip depends not just on the clip but also on the viewer. Was this not observed in the pilot studies? Was it addressed on the report?

MuffinMarch 23, 2008 4:14 PM

@Ken Hagler: the summary says "you think you're more at risk", not "you are more at risk". I almost misread it, too, though.

Frank Ch. EiglerMarch 23, 2008 5:29 PM

Geez Bruce, everything is a Rorschach inkblot for you. TFA says nothing about being "angry at the administration for not safeguarding liberties". It says "anger" ... and my magic 8-ball interprets that as "anger at the perpetrators".

markchdMarch 23, 2008 6:47 PM

I love your point of view, but I agree with several of the other commenters that your conclusion doesn't follow logically from the article. Has it been established that an optimistic outlook leads to better outcomes?

georgeMarch 23, 2008 8:48 PM

Yet all they (the police, state DOT, and corps) are worried about is a citizen taking a photo of a fuel spill as an environmental hazard in the community, then telling them they are breaking the law and may be prosecuted as terrorist for the photos of a fuel truck.

AntimediaMarch 23, 2008 9:29 PM

Your summary is nonsensical.

The study found that those who are motivated by anger will act aggressively toward those who are the source of their anger. Those who are motivated by fear will seek to appease their attackers. (Not exactly a stunning conclusion.)

Assuming the research results are dispositive, they prove that those who seek to negotiate with terrorists are driven by fear, and those how seek to attack terrorists are driven by anger. Precisely the opposite of the claims you constantly make about the motivations of those who support the war and of those who oppose it.

Interesting that you choose to expose your cognitive dissonance so publicly.

DavidMarch 23, 2008 10:39 PM

@Antimedia:

The problem is that the Bush administration has chosen to exploit the fear from 9/11, and frighten people into compliance with its aggression against other people entirely. Only those who aren't ruled by the fear are going to think clearly enough to disagree.

You know, I used to believe that crap about "the land of the free and the home of the brave". The last six years have really put a dent in that. If we were, we wouldn't be deathly afraid of terrorists, and more insistent on freedom.

AnonymousMarch 23, 2008 10:49 PM

@David, so you're arguing that the study got it exactly backwards? Because, according to this study, if the administration were trying to exploit the fear from 9/11, they would be working hard to negotiate with Al Qaeda and Syria and Iraq, etc., etc.

Or do you disbelieve the study?

Just for the record, I'm not the least bit afraid of terrorists, but I do enjoy immensely watching them get their asses kicked by our military.

DavidMarch 24, 2008 7:02 AM

@Anonymous

The problem is not with the study. The problem is with the governments (federal, state, and local).

The study is about people's immediate reactions. What's happening in real life is that the governments are trying to keep us scared in order to do various things, mostly to gain more power and less accountability. Since people are scared, they don't object to losing civil liberties and living in a place where, say, flashing lights are held to justify lethal force. Bear in mind that, whenever something unusual happens, and the authorities overreact, there are plenty of people here justifying the overreaction.

If people were more angry, they would be doing different things. They might be angry at various government actions. They might be angry at the real terrorists, and therefore angry at the Bush administration for invading Iraq rather than concentrating on al-Qaida. They might be angry when government officials inconvenience and even endanger innocent people for reasons that make no sense. Any of these would have more positive results than giving more and more power to the US governments and cowering in fear.

For the record, I'm not afraid of terrorists. I'm afraid of government officials arbitrarily making a decision that benefits hardly anybody but hurts me or my loved ones.

What!!!March 24, 2008 7:59 AM

I'm missing the point here. Rather than blame a government that is already too big (and government should be smaller) how about those people stand up and volunteer to be part of the solution rather than part of the mob complaining about the problem. It always cracks me up how a group of people can say "that UBL guy can't do that to me! This is America and we wont stand for that. Now you, soldier, go fight for my rights while I sit here and complain.

Alan PorterMarch 24, 2008 8:41 AM

This seems like a pretty simple concept. If we are fearful, we feel helpless against attacks. That is, we've lost hope. However, if we are angry, we resolve to kick some terrorist a**, thus "solving" the problem.

So the difference between fear and anger is hope, empowerment, ability.

I think the closing quote misses the point. I think they're talking about anger directed towards the attacker, and not against ourselves or our own government.

SoldierMarch 24, 2008 8:44 AM

@ What!!!

If you are soldier, your job is to do what you are told. Period. You are not charged with "defending" freedom. You are charged with acheiving whatever objetives your superior has decided needed completing. Whether that has anything to do with freedom or liberty is anyones guess.

johnp271March 24, 2008 8:45 AM

I don't see at all how "So, to summarize..." follows from the preceding data. But, let's accept the summary and apply it to other circumstances. The logic suggests that individuals and corporations should not be fearful of malicious attacks on their networks but rather angry that those entities protecting their networks, e.g. Counterpane, et al, are doing such a poor job protecting them.

What!!!March 24, 2008 9:40 AM

Obviously the guy who pens himself "soldier" is not, since there is no real concept of what the military's job entails in the response. However, I will digress on that point and offer this one. I was not necessarily referring just to that soldier on the front line, I was referring to folks who complain about problems but offer no solution other than to say that the "government" is responsible for fixing the problem. I do agree with johnP271's comments though, that the point of the paper should focus on fear of malicious attacks on networks rather than a world of physical terrorism that cannot be solved by overcoming fear.

Rionn Fears MalechemMarch 24, 2008 9:51 AM

[P]eople 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.
It doesn't seem to matter what you're angry at -- your whole worldview is affected, not just your view of the specific context. Our government provides a host of persistent, anger-inducing activities, so Mr. Schneier's summary seems sound.

I would reject that anger and fear are your only options -- living with either sounds physiologically detrimental -- but that's outside discussion of this specific topic.

DaedalaMarch 24, 2008 10:06 AM

I'm not sure the conclustion preferring anger to fear is warranted:

"Unexpectedly, an emotion difference emerged for investing in general capabilities over specific solutions; fearful respondents showed modestly more support for this policy than angry respondents did."

Lots of interesting stuff there. I was particuarly appalled at the risk people assigned to the likelihood of being harmed by terrorism in the next year. (12% was the most conservative estimate, taken by throwing out all the 50% answers on the theory that people meant uncertainty ("50-50") rather than an actual number. 12%! WTF?)

jbMarch 24, 2008 10:17 AM

Bruce, were you really part of the research? Are these your study results? So contradictory, so hard to believe.

OTOH, if current state is "fear", if current actions are not aggressive; I wonder what an angry reaction would be like...Nuke the middle-east??

Anonymous CowardMarch 24, 2008 10:52 AM

>You know, I used to believe that crap about
>"the land of the free and the home of the brave".
>The last six years have really put a dent in that.

Where were you for the eight years before that?

OneFishMarch 24, 2008 12:32 PM

"Fear is a direct consequence of ignorance. You don't fear what you know."

Poorly constructed, Dude. Fear is NOT a direct consequence of ignorance and it most assuredly IS reasonable to fear things you know.

So, do I fear a wild beehive? Well, sure, but that fear is proportional and depends on whether I am in an area colonized by Africanized bees or not, the temperature and so on...I have been zapped by many a pointed insect but I have a reasonable knowledge of them so my fear (I also appreciate and respect them) is tempered by rationality.

I would state it differently: the more you know about a threat, the more rational your fear and behavior with respect to that threat will be. In light of recent history, ignorance has been our collective weakness since it allowed us (some of us anyway) to be grossly manipulated by a pack of fascists.

SkorjMarch 24, 2008 2:50 PM

" the point of the paper should focus on fear of malicious attacks on networks rather than a world of physical terrorism that cannot be solved by overcoming fear."

That simply isn't true. Physical terrorism doesn't meaningfully reduce our military or industrial capability, or our population: its only use in war is to reduce our willingness to fight. If we weren't so willing to fantastically overreact to terrorist incidents, terrorism would be pointless.

GPEMarch 24, 2008 3:10 PM

"...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..."

Yes, we should do this. However, in my experience (ie. not a science study, but based on 20+ years of study in martial arts), the majority of people are predisposed to be fearful first. And it is this larger pool from which policy and law makers are derived. Therefore, we end up with fear-based and fear-blinded policies and laws.

AleMarch 28, 2008 11:54 AM

@Anonymous:
"if the administration were trying to exploit the fear from 9/11, they would be working hard to negotiate with Al Qaeda and Syria and Iraq, etc., etc."

I do not see how this follows. Would you care to clarify? In my mind, it works quite well. Greater fear in people increases their risk perception. Increased risk perception leads to greater amounts of money spent in useless but expensive security theater, which in turn relates to a healthy profit for their owners.

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