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June 25, 2007

Fear and Decision-Making

pv-waves.jpgIt is almost axiomatic that the American people became more conservative after the attacks on 9-11. But just why is still being debated. One explanatory thread involves fear - but not just fear in general, rather particular fears.

A posting on Pacific Views has an interesting take on the role of fear in our decision-making processes.

A few snippets:

The conservatives generally, evidently including members of the top military brass, seem to be driven by a primitive fear not of attack or physical violence, but of humiliation. This is what makes them tick and it's the essence of what's gone wrong since 9/11.

And this from a speech by Aun Sang Suu Kyi:

It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it... With so close a relationship between fear and corruption it is little wonder that in any society where fear is rife corruption in all forms becomes deeply entrenched.

The posting also references an article in the February edition of Psychology Today that discusses several studies related to temperament in childhood and political orientation in adulthood.

The author of one study came to a noteworthy conclusion:

People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

The Envelope Please...

knucklehead.jpgFred Whitman, the institute's founder, often spoke of creating a '"Knucklehead Award" to be presented to...well knuckleheads. If we were to give out such an award, perhaps no one would be more deserving right now than the respondents to the latest Newsweek poll about all things current. And if these respondents are at all representative, then heaven help us, as we present the award to the American people.

Here are just a few of the disturbing highlights:


77% -- Americans who did not know, or answered incorrectly, a question about which country has the largest number of Muslims (correct: Indonesia)

55% -- Interestingly, a majority of respondents knew the current price of a barrel of oil (correct: about $70)

54% -- Also somewhat surprising a majority of respondents knew that the human brain continues to produce neurons well past the age of 65.

43% -- American who knew that the majority of the 9-11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia

41% -- Americans who still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack on 9-11 (up from 36 points since the last survey)

22% -- Americans who think that the Amazon River is in Africa

Perhaps now is the time to begin shooting our TV sets before we all go Hi-Definition, and put our AM radios on mute. It is truly remarkable how much incorrect information seems to get into the bloodstream of the body politic, and how difficult it is to leech it out.