The Politics of Fear

Recent presidential debates offered a consensus message:  be afraid. 

“They’re trying to kill us all,” warned Lindsay Graham. “America is at war,” echoed Ted Cruz. “Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound,” cautioned Chris Christie.

The terrorist threat is real, and its results horrific. With scenes from the Paris and San Bernardino attacks flooding our minds, the politics of fear has grown. Twenty-seven percent of Americans recently identified terrorism as their biggest worry—up from 8 percent just before the Paris attacks. In two new national surveys (here and here), terrorism topped the list of “most important” issues facing the country. We are, observed Senator Marco Rubio, “really scared and worried” . . . and thus the fears of Syrian refugees, or even all Muslims.

We may, however, be too afraid of terrorism, and too little afraid of other much greater perils.  Moreover, fearing the wrong things has social and political consequences, as I explain here (a site that also offers other behavioral scientists’ reflections on important scientific news).