Fear of terrorism

Virtually all Westerners fear terrorism far more than they fear dying out of complications resulting from eating junk food, even though the largest modern terrorist attack, 9/11, killed the same number of Americans that die in about 3 days from problems associated with obesity alone.

Eschewing the standard explanation of evolutionary psychology, Stentor talks about the problem in sociological terms, coming from risk perception theory:

I don’t think a single direct explanation, of the type Roberts proposes, is sufficient here. Cultural theory tells us that we fear risks that are immoral. Moral outrage arises from violation of accepted social structures (the generalized building blocks of which are doubtless evolved, but whose specific applications are contingent and cultural). According to Alan Fiske, there are four such building blocks — ingroup/outgroup boundedness, ranking, equality, and freedom. Thus I would suggest there are at least four key triggers of fear: infiltration/profanity, insubordination, unfairness, and tyranny. Terrorism is able, in our culture, to set off all four triggers (albeit different ones to different extents for different people — a crucial caveat in all such discussions). Poor diet can perhaps trigger one, but even that is mitigated by our modern liberal (in the sense of the broad historical tradition, not the contemporary political agenda) culture.

Terrorism is infiltration — unbeknownst to us, outsiders are able to slip into our society, exploiting our institutions in order to destroy them. Terrorism is insubordination — there’s an established pecking order in the world, in which the USA is the alpha male, and organized states with uniformed armies stand above non-state actors. But terrorism is precisely an attempt to overturn this order. Terrorism is thus also unfairness — terrorists refuse to play by the post-Westphalia rules of political struggle, inserting both themselves and civilians into a form of conflict that is supposed to be reserved for uniformed armies. Finally, the particular form of terrorism we face now is tyranny — the popularity of the term “Islamofascism” shows how we concieve the terrorists’ goal as the establishment of a theocracy repressing legitimate freedoms. (Anarchist terrorism would lack this trigger, but it would get a double hit on the “insubordination” trigger, since it aims at the overthrow of all rankings.)

Poor diet is not tyranny — indeed, it’s defended as an expression of personal freedom to eat what we please. Poor diet is not unfair — indeed, criticism of poor diet is (inaccurately) derided as elitist and proposing solutions beyond the budgets of normal people. Poor diet is not insubordination — indeed, eating Big Macs shows you’re a regular joe, whereas eating tofu is either elitism or the converse crime of effeminacy. One can potentially see poor diet as a form of infiltration/profanity, in a way similar to how sodomy is seen by some as a crime against (an infiltration or profaning of) one’s own body. However, that framing has little traction in a modern liberal culture (even sodomy is more feared due to being seen as insubordination). We insist that one’s body is one’s property, to be done with as we like. What’s more, unhealthy foods are accepted parts of our society, so it’s difficult for the average American to conceptualize them as dangerous outsiders.

This looks like a fairly sound explanation to me, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. One of the basics of risk perception is that we fear risks we don’t control more than risks we do control. People fear plane crashes far more than they fear car accidents, even though the only trigger that applies to plane crashes is, possibly, freedom, since airline passengers surrender all control to the pilots.

So it could just boil down to the idea that terrorism is an unknown, uncontrollable foreign risk, whereas poor diet is a known, controllable, local risk. It’s telling that the people who are trying the most to get people to worry about poor diet present it in terms of a pernicious corporate entity making people eat poorly, i.e. a violation of bodily autonomy akin to rape.

Still, the division of fear into four different kinds of values makes a fair amount of sense. In particular, it explains the way liberalism on immigration and liberalism on other issues, such as homosexuality and religion, are largely orthogonal in Europe: immigration triggers fear of infiltration, whereas secularism and homosexuality trigger fear of insubordination; indeed, in the US, where immigrants tend to assimilate to mainstream culture faster than in Europe, and where on the other hand atheism and homosexuality seem foreign, these two kinds of fears merge, and people who are liberal with respect to one are usually liberal with respect to the other.

16 Responses to Fear of terrorism

  1. Greg says:

    Well said.

    Self evident is also the fear of instant death from terrorism vs slow death caused by obesity. With one you have the feeling that when confronted – you can mend your ways in time to receive a life extension.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    To be honest, I’m not familiar with differential perceptions of risks that are different only in that one is slow and the other is immediate, since there are usually too many other variables to control. What you say sounds plausible; I just don’t know if there’s any research that supports or undermines it.

    The only thing I know that has any relevance to it is that especially post-Chernobyl, anti-nuclear sentiments, a classic case of an overestimated fear, have been based more on long-term radiation poisoning than on mushroom clouds. Radiation poisoning isn’t really something you can mend to save your own life, but maybe this suggests that the key factor isn’t that death by obesity is slow, but that it’s considered a voluntary risk.

  3. Greg says:

    With regards to radiation and anti-nuclear sentiment, the perception was determined by education (or lack of information) being available at the time. In this scenerio, your original arguement holds true as the feeling of being helpless raises the fear factor.

    Being a voluntary risk suggests that the option to make last minute changes is still available (like smoking) but at what point is the damage irreversable? I have no research to provide that would validate this proposition – just a gut feeling.

    However, speaking with others in the community – the fear of uncontrolable instant death is enough for governments to keep the defence budget going. Yep, there are a lot of facits behind the fear of terrorism. Thanks for your post

  4. Agent KGB says:

    It’s like people fearing sharks or wolves even though the odds of being killed by one is less than the odds of being killed by a vending machine.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    You’re welcome, Greg… information obviously matters, but it’s legitimate to ask why absent any concrete facts, most people’s knee-jerk response is to fear nuclear power more than coal power, or plane crashes more than car accidents, or, as Agent KGB notes, wolves more than vending machines.

  6. Stentor says:

    Alon: If you’re interested in research, points much like those of our host and Greg are made in psychological studies by Paul Slovic (his book _The Perception of Risk_ has most of his major articles, or look up anything he published in the 80s).

  7. Stentor says:

    Oops — and if I would learn to check the “about me” page or UTI first, I’d know you are our host.

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