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.