Threat Assessment II: Demons of Fear & Anger

In the previous essay on threat assessment I looked at the influence of availability heuristics and fallacies that directly relate to errors in reasoning about statistics and probability. This essay continues the discussion by exploring the influence of fear and anger on threat assessment.

As noted in the previous essay, a rational assessment of a threat involves properly considering how likely it is that a threat will occur and, if it occurs, how severe the consequences might be. As might be suspected, the influence of fear and anger can cause people to engage in poor threat assessment that overestimates the likelihood of a threat or the severity of the threat.

One common starting point for anger and fear is the stereotype. Roughly put, a stereotype is an uncritical generalization about a group. While stereotypes are generally thought of as being negative (that is, attributing undesirable traits such as laziness or greed), there are also positive stereotypes. They are not positive in that the stereotyping itself is good. Rather, the positive stereotype attributes desirable qualities, such as being good at math or skilled at making money. While it makes sense to think that stereotypes that provide a foundation for fear would be negative, they often include a mix of negative and positive qualities. For example, a feared group might be cast as stupid, yet somehow also incredibly cunning and dangerous.

After recent terrorist attacks, many people in the United States have embraced negative stereotypes about Muslims, such as the idea that they are all terrorists. This sort of stereotyping leads to similar mistakes that arise from hasty generalizations: reasoning about a threat based on stereotypes will tend to lead to an error in assessment. The defense against a stereotype is to seriously inquire whether the stereotype is true or not.

This stereotype has been used as a base (or fuel) for a stock rhetorical tool, that of demonizing. Demonizing, in this context, involves portraying a group as evil and dangerous. This can be seen as a specialized form of hyperbole in that it exaggerates the evil of the group and the danger it represents. Demonizing is often combined with scapegoating—blaming a person or group for problems they are not actually responsible for. A person can demonize on her own or be subject to the demonizing rhetoric of others.

Demonizing presents a clear threat to rational threat assessment. If a group is demonized successfully, it will be (by definition) regarded as more evil and dangerous than it really is. As such, both the assessment of the probability and severity of the threat will be distorted. For example, the demonization of Muslims by various politicians and pundits influences some people to make errors in assessing the danger presented by Muslims in general and Syrian refugees in particular.

The defense against demonizing is similar to the defense against stereotypes—a serious inquiry into whether the claims are true or are, in fact, demonizing. It is worth noting that what might seem to be demonizing might be an accurate description. This is because demonizing is, like hyperbole, exaggerating the evil of and danger presented by a group. If the description is true, then it would not be demonizing. Put informally, describing a group as evil and dangerous need not be demonizing. For example, this description would match the Khmer Rouge.

While stereotyping and demonizing are mere rhetorical devices, there are also fallacies that distort threat assessment. Not surprisingly, one of this is scare tactics (also known as appeal to fear). This fallacy involves substituting something intended to create fear in the target in place of evidence for a claim. While scare tactics can be used in other ways, it can be used to distort threat assessment. One aspect of its distortion is the use of fear—when people are afraid, they tend to overestimate the probability and severity of threats. Scare tactics is also used to feed fear—one fear can be used to get people to accept a claim that makes them even more afraid.

One thing that is especially worrisome about scare tactics in the context of terrorism is that in addition to making people afraid, it is also routinely used to “justify” encroachments on rights, massive spending, and the abandonment of important moral values. While courage is an excellent defense against this fallacy, asking two important questions also helps. The first is to ask “should I be afraid?” and the second is to ask “even if I am afraid, is the claim actually true?” For example, scare tactics has been used to “support” the claim that Syrian refugees should not be allowed into the United States. In the face of this tactic, one should inquire whether or not there are grounds to be afraid of Syrian refugees and also inquire into whether or not an appeal to fear justifies the proposed ban (obviously, it does not).

It is worth noting that just because something is scary or makes people afraid it does not follow that it cannot serve as legitimate evidence in a good argument. For example, the possibility of a fatal head injury from a motorcycle accident is scary, but is also a good reason to wear a helmet. The challenge is sorting out “judgments” based merely on fear and judgments that involve good reasoning about scary things.

While fear makes people behave irrationally, so does anger. While anger is an emotion and not a fallacy, it does provide the fuel for the appeal to anger. This fallacy occurs when something that is intended to create anger is substituted for evidence for a claim. For example, a demagogue might work up a crowd’s anger at illegal migrants to get them to accept absurd claims about building a wall along a massive border.

Like scare tactics, the use of an appeal to anger distorts threat assessment. One aspect is that when people are angry, they tend to reason poorly about the likelihood and severity of a threat. For example, the crowd that is enraged against illegal migrants might greatly overestimate the likelihood that the migrants are “taking their jobs” and the extent to which they are “destroying America.” Another aspect is that the appeal to anger, in the context of public policy, is often used to “justify” policies that encroach on rights and do other harms. For example, when people are angry about a mass shooting, proposals follow to limit gun rights that actually had no relevance to the incident. As another example, the anger at illegal migrants is often used to “justify” policies that would actually be harmful to the United States. As a third example, appeals to anger are often used to justify policies that would be ineffective at addressing terrorism and would do far more harm than good (such as the proposed ban on all Muslims).

It is important to keep in mind that if a claim makes a person angry, it does not follow that the claim cannot be evidence for a conclusion. For example, a person who learns that her husband is having an affair with an underage girl would probably be very angry. But, this would also serve as good evidence for the conclusion that she should report him to the police and then divorce him. As another example, the fact that illegal migrants are here illegally and this is often simply tolerated can make someone mad, but this can also serve as a premise in a good argument in favor of enforcing (or changing) the laws.

One defense against appeal to anger is good anger management skills. Another is to seriously inquire into whether or not there are grounds to be angry and whether or not any evidence is being offered for the claim. If all that is offered is an appeal to anger, then there is no reason to accept the claim on the basis of the appeal.

The rational assessment of threats is important for practical and moral reasons. Since society has limited resources, rationally using them requires considering the probability of threats rationally—otherwise resources are being misspent. There is also the concern about the harm of creating fear and anger that are unfounded. In addition to the psychological harm to individuals that arise from living in fear and anger, there is also the damage stereotyping, demonizing, scare tactics and appeal to anger do to society as a whole. While anger and fear can unify people, they most often unify by dividing—pitting us against them.

As in my previous essay, I urge people to think through threats rather than giving in to the seductive demons of fear and anger.



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  1. As I said in response to your previous post on threat assessment, the heart of the question is how far one’s right to protect one’s own safety trumps the good of others.

    It is probably true that keeping all Muslim immigrants out of the U.S. reduces the probability of jihadist terrorism within the U.S.. In fact, keeping all immigrants and foreign tourists out of the U.S. would undoubtedly reduce the probability of terrorism, as would deporting everyone except you and your immediate family.

    Just it doesn’t seem that any one person has the right to protect their safety to the extent that all members of a religious group are prevented from entering their country, especially given the fact that some members of that religious group are refugees from a bloody civil war and are seeking safety themselves. There would have to be a very high probability that members of that religious group would commit acts of terrorism and that is not the case.

    It is very selfish to want to protect oneself to the extent that others are harmed or prevented from living a decent life, unless there is very good reason to believe that those others are a clear threat to one’s life or well-being (and by “well-being” I don’t mean one’s bank-balance).

  2. The study of threats is a new and interesting approach to philosophy. Threats have been sadly neglected as most traditional philosophy has centered before on the discussions deriving from the Greek good life, and the identity of the self. Game theory has been the main academic field where the study of threats has been taken seriously and with any depth.

  3. Earlier this week similar bomb threats were sent to NY and LA school officials. In LA, it lead to school closures city-wide, while in NY, the threat was deemed non-credible. It’s likely the public never would have heard about the NY threat had LA not closed schools. There followed some citicism back and forth between the Police Cheif of NY (who used to work in LA) and the Schoo Superintendent of LA (who used to work in NY) and some debate as to which city got it right. Many cited LA’s proximity to San Bernadino as reason for their more aggressive reaction and NY’s greater experience with threats in general as the explanation for their more relaxed one. While it was likely a hoax, this strkes me as the very heart of terrorism, using fear to debilitate a city and cause government officials to doubt their decisions. I’d love to read an examination of these reactions from a philosophy perspective.

  4. s.wallerstein,

    Good points.

    As you note, excluding all Muslims would reduce the risk. However, the risk is so tiny and the harms that would arise from addressing that tiny risk would seem to make such a policy morally and practically wrong. Even if there was a way to make it work.

  5. If a certain race or nation of people present with sufficient numbers of them to give others some concern, are those others, not justified in viewing all members of that race or nation at the very least with suspicion. I’m not advocating that the others should boycott them all, but it may be very difficult to eradicate that suspicion which arises within us by way of the natural inherited protective devices which are there for the purposes of survival.

  6. Don Bird,

    The thing is that those inherited mechanisms, which teach you that if the first lion or bear you see is dangerous, the second one is likely to be so too and to avoid them, are very useful in the forest, but don’t work so well in a big city.

    First of all, given the fear of certain races or nations, you lose the opportunity of getting to know them and thus, to learn from their traditions and wisdom or to enjoy their company and second, you discriminate against them in daily contact, thus harming their possibilities of thriving or flourishing, making it more difficult for them to find jobs or housing or to get a taxi on a rainy night, etc.

    We’ve all seen the figures which show that your possibilities of dying in a traffic accident, even if you are a good driver, are much higher than your possibilities of dying in a terrorist attack, but you don’t, for that reason, stop driving or stop crossing the street as a pedestrian.

  7. Re S Wallerstein Dec. 19th

    “First of all, given the fear of certain races or nations, you lose the opportunity of getting to know them and thus, to learn from their traditions and wisdom or to enjoy their company and second, you discriminate against them in daily contact, thus harming their possibilities of thriving or flourishing, making it more difficult for them to find jobs or housing or to get a taxi on a rainy night, etc.”

    Yes you are right there, and I have no issues with what you say. However that is not quite what I was driving at which seems to be a point of view some may describe as racist, not a word I care to use on any occasion.
    The sort of feelings I had in mind are somewhat deep-seated in the human psyche so much so that we may not even be aware that they are there, but they may function on an unconscious level. For instance a person with whom you are friendly may exhibit some habit, or trend which is not to your taste. If his birthright is very different from your own you may well accept that we are all different in some way or another, but the habit or trend above-mentioned does seem to be common to the background of your friend. When I was at university I noticed some of a certain race of people when washing their hands in the public toilet would at the same time expectorate and clear their noses into the hand wash basin. I did not care for this practice, but most certainly would not have complained. This did not prejudice me against those people because my ways were not theirs and vice versa. What I’m trying to drive at is that we are really all different from each other and at a certain level we have to accept that our ways are not their ways and vice versa. Nevertheless I feel that a certain suspicion lingers almost unnoticed in the mind concerning certain people. In this connection I think that Donald Trump is a person who will allow these small and often inoffensive thoughts to overwhelm him and dam all others some of whom have exhibited undesirable traits. His decision to ban all Muslims from the USA is to my mind uttered as result of feelings and not as a result of having considered the matter coolly and calmly and if it is going to really have any noticeable effect on the safety of American citizens. If certain undesirable people wish to get into the USA they will in my opinion find a way.
    If you think closely about this problem you will find that there are many differences between nations and races which seem insurmountable. I can think of one world leader who believes that homosexuality is a choice we make which so far as my knowledge goes is not the case. It does not seem unreasonable to me that in view of that I am slightly suspicious as the what else he may have up his sleeve and in addition how many others from his background have the same opinions.
    Suspicions may be aroused but acting upon them is another entirely different thing and until we have firm evidence that our suspicions are right we should in the meantime keep them to ourselves and not allow them to become the basis of action.

  8. Don Bird,

    You say that when you were at the university, you noticed that a certain race of people would expectorate in the hand wash basin.

    Is that racial trait or a cultural one? That is, would a person from the same race (or with the same phenotype) raised in another culture and educated in another manner, perhaps raised and educated as you (and I) were, exhibit the same behaviors, which I also find to be disgusting and unsanitary?

  9. Re S Wallerstein Dec 20th

    I would say that the behaviour in question finds its origin in the culture which is general for a particular race. My understanding now is that the rather unpleasant practice is not approved of by the better educated people of that particular race. What annoys me most in connection with these discussions is the fact that there exists in the world a multitude of very sensitive booby traps. These come in the form of so-called politically correct human beings who at the least provocation hurl the insult “Racist”, demanding apologies be given to people they have never met, and refusing to continue discussions on reasonable and sensible basis. It is for this reason that I do not identify the race or culture of the people of whom I’ve spoken. This I find extremely irritating as it prevents me from uttering other behaviours concerning other races or cultures which, rightly or wrongly I may or may not approve. If I think statements that another person makes are unjustified I would put my own viewpoint but would never occur to me to label them as such and such because of their views, although I may well wish to explain as thoroughly as I am capable, why I think they may be wrong. At no time would I indulge in name-calling or a refusal to continue communication.
    Mike seems to have dealt with this problem in some depth in his discussion of stereotyping in this blog.

  10. Don Bird,

    For what it’s worth, I see it this way.

    Certain races, for example, black people, have been enslaved and exploited by white people. Their nations were colonized and looted by white people. As a result, many of them see white people as their oppressors and they are ultra-sensitive about any negative or critical comments that white people may say about them, although those comments at times may be accurate.

    Now it would be great if the black people in question could distinguish negative from constructive criticism, because not all white people are their enemy and in any case, slavery was abolished many years ago and colonialism is a thing of the past. That is, you, as a white British person (I assume that you are British), today are not responsible for what
    Great Britain did in Africa before you were born. Although I would point out that the relatively high standard of living that you have in Great Britain is partially the result of having looted Africa in the 19th and early 20th century and thus, you benefit from that.

    In any case, given that blacks were the subject of historical racism, slavery and colonialism and that they are still the objects of racism in many places, noblesse oblige is my advice. Does is it really hard to respect their sensitive points given all their race has been through in historical terms? I don’t find it hard at all.

    I’m sure that some will find my comments to be patronizing, but….

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