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15 April 2006

Harding and Alexander on Beliefs About Terrorism

Marcus Alexander and Matthew Harding recently presented "Beliefs Over the Unknown: Understanding The Threat of Terrorism" at the Political Psychology and Behavior Workshop. The authors argue that extant models describing how rational actors forecast the future are inadequate for explaining the way humans think about terrorist attacks. Alexander and Harding propose an ingenious new model, which allows actors to carry out a series of counterfactual thought experiments in order to place a non-zero probability on yet unrealized events occurring. They concluded their paper by arguing that democratic deliberation results in groups placing insufficient weight over the unknown. The implication suggested is that classic results about the efficiency of aggregating decision-making (i.e. Condorcet Jury Theorem) do not apply in the case of envisioning the future.

Studies examining the roles of terrorist attacks in shaping American political behavior represents a new literature with both theoretical and policy implications. One theory is that the public, while frightened from a terrorist attack, will cede civil liberties for a heightened sense of security. For example, Darren Davis and Brian Silver in “Civil Liberties vs Security: Public Opinion in the Context of Terrorist Attacks on America�? show that commitment to Democratic norms is highly contingent on the perceived threat from terrorism. Alexander and Harding’s model shows that immediately after a terrorist attack, individuals may overweight the probability of an attack in the future, particularly while engaging in democratic deliberation. Subsequently, one could easily imagine the dire consequences for a democratic society.

Posted by Justin Grimmer at April 15, 2006 1:40 PM