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Paranoia About Immigrants, The Danger of Fear

David Ropeik


Fear usually trumps most other emotions. It has to, if we are to survive. But it also readily trumps objective reason, which is another effective way for making intelligent decisions about how best to keep ourselves safe. It sounds counterintuitive, but as protective as fear can be, it can also be dangerous.

The Trump Administration’s order for ‘extreme vetting’ of certain immigrants is a sobering example. The Executive Order to limit entry into America by travelers from seven nations that are both Muslim-majority and known to be bases for radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, directly appeals to fear by calling to mind and heart the lingering worry seared into the American psyche on September 11, 2001:

…when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans.

But while the President invokes that fearful day in support of his policy—wrapped in extensive pre- and post-election rhetoric about Muslims in general and Islamic jihadist extremism in particular—he is appealing to a fear that, while widely held, vastly exceeds the actual risk he says we need to worry about, claiming that:

Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program.

The fact—not the alternative fact, but the statistically verifiable fact—is that those “numerous” crimes related to radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorism aren’t really all that numerous. According to New America, a non-partisan think tank that closely monitors this risk:

In the fifteen years after 9/11, jihadists have killed 94 people inside the United States. Each of those deaths is a tragedy. The attack in Orlando was the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 and the deadliest mass shooting in American history. However, the attacks are not national catastrophes of the type the United States experienced on 9/11. Instead the death toll has been quite similar to other forms of political—and even non-political—violence Americans face today.

Ninety-four deaths since 2001 by this sort of attack, across a population that averaged about 300 million over that period of time, comes to roughly one person per three million, a rate of 0.0000003. You’d be hard pressed to find a risk of any kind that poses less of a threat to the safety of the average American. But then, risk perception—fear—is much more a matter of how we feel about the facts than about the facts alone. And the threat of terrorism from radical fundamentalist Islamists has all sorts of unique emotional characteristics that make it way scarier than the numbers alone warrant.

  • We are more frightened by any threat about which we feel uncertain, and terrorism has all sorts of unknowns; who will attack, where, when, how, targeting whom? We just don’t know, which leaves us feeling vulnerable, powerless, and more afraid.
  • We are more frightened by risks that we think can happen to us personally, as opposed to threats to someone else, and terrorism is so random and occurs in such public places that it feels like we are all potential targets.
  • We are way more frightened by risks that get lots of attention, and it’s safe to say that the 94 deaths from jihadist terrorism have gotten vastly more attention than most of the threats that threaten us far more.
  • And of course we are way more frightened by risks that target our tribe, as the President depicts the “THEM coming to get US” nature of radical Islamic terrorism, though jihad has killed far more people elsewhere than here. Humans are social animals and acutely sensitive to threats to the tribe(s) with which we identify. An attack on anyone in our tribe feels like a personal attack as well.

So it’s not surprising that, despite the tiny actual risk, a plurality of Americans support the ban, and 31% of Americans specifically say the new immigration policy will keep them safer. Nor is it surprising that the bulk of those who think the ban will protect them self-identify as conservative, which is consistent with research that finds that people who are more conservative politically, culturally, and in terms of overall values, are also more sensitive to risk…especially if the warnings of danger have come from the leaders of their political or cultural tribes (arch-conservative Republicans, fundamentalist Evangelical Christians.)

But a nearly similar number of people, 26%, fear the new rules will make them less safe. ISIS is already using the new rules as a recruiting tool and rallying cry. Hate crimes fueled by the ban’s targeting of Muslim countries will certainly victimize many more people than will jihadist terrorism. The support in the battle against such terrorism that governments need from the vast Muslim community that abhors and rejects such violence, may weaken. The international relations that facilitate sharing of intelligence in fighting terrorism by Islamic extremists are also threatened. And these new rules unquestionably create a new and less welcoming environment for Americans traveling abroad, and even greater divisiveness among Americans at home.

A cold-hearted assessment of the facts suggest that the protection from these rules will most likely be outweighed by the many dangers they create. But how we see potential danger and choose to protect ourselves is far more a matter of how we feel than an objective assessment of the evidence alone. And as history has taught us (and is teaching us with the election of Donald Trump and this new immigration policy), fear may be the most powerful feeling of all, and though it helps us survive, one of the most dangerous.

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About the Author


David Ropeik is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, an instructor at Harvard University Extension School, and a risk-communication consultant.

In Print:

How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts


Ropeik & Associates

Immigration Innumeracy: How Well Informed Are People About Immigration?

Is immigration innumeracy based on emotion or experience?

Immigration reform is a hot issue these days, both in the U.S. and in Europe.  In the U.S., the debate about immigration reform has recently heated up, after the passage of a new Arizona law that would require that law enforcement personnel, when suspicious about whether someone is a legal resident, get proof that the individual is a legal resident or to take them into custody. In Europe, concerns about immigration have led the European Union to work towards the development of a common EU immigration policy.

But while immigration reform is a big concern, it is not clear how much the public really knows about immigration, nor how public opinion about immigration is shaped.   An interesting new research paper by Daniel Herda (UC Davis), sheds some light on these questions.   Herda’s paper is now available online, “How Many Immigrants? Foreign-Born Population Innumeracy in Europe”, and he looks at immigration innumeracy across a number of European nations.

So what is “immigration innumeracy”?  The Wikipedia entry for “innumeracy” defines it as “a lack of ability to reason with numbers.”  Thus, “immigration innumeracy” is the lack of an ability to reason with numbers about immigration — specifically in the context of Herda’s study, a lack of knowledge about the size of the immigrant population in one’s own nation. 

Of course, there have been studies of innumeracy regarding minority populations in the U.S., but as Herda correctly points out, these studies have not come to a strong consensus about the causes of minority population innumeracy.  Typically, past studies have found that people tend to overestimate the size of minority populations, and that this innumeracy tends to occur for less informed survey respondents and those who have more contact with the minority groups.

Herda finds something very similar in his study — Europeans tend to overestimate the size of the immigrant population in their nations (see Table 2 in his paper).  In a number of nations, the mean survey estimate of the size of the immigrant population is twice that of the actual size of the immigrant population.  So immigration innumeracy is the norm across these European nations.

Also like the past studies regarding minority population innumeracy done in the U.S., Herda finds that for Europeans the extent of immigration innumeracy is associated with how informed and exposed to information an individual is.

But what is most important about Herda’s study is that he finds that emotional factors play an important role immigration innumeracy:  “Among the emotional predictors, perceived threat has a strong positive association with innumeracy. It does so net of social distance and political conservatism, which have their own significant positive and negative associations, respectively.” 

It is this emotional basis for immigration innumeracy that I find most intriguing. To the extent that an individual in one of these surveys perceives that immigrants pose a threat, they are more likely to overestimate the extent of the immigrant population. 

What implications does this have for the immigration debate in Europe, or the U.S.?  Clearly, this needs research.  Does immigration innumeracy indicate a predisposition to a susceptibility to anti-immigrant rhetoric?  Can innumeracy be influenced by candidates and political parties?  Are the emotional factors playing a role in immigration innumeracy similar in the U.S.?  Can political rhetoric leverage innumeracy and sway opinions about immigration and immigration reform? 

While there is a great need for new research on questions like these, it seems pretty clear that candidates and politicians know how to connect their emotional rhetoric about immigration with numeracy about the issue.  For example, the 1994 Wilson television advertisement about illegal immigration (which I wrote about in another blog essay, “Threat and Anxiety — Why Negative Political Attack Ads Work”) seeks to connect emotions and numeracy:  just listen to the first part of the ad, “They keep coming.  Two million illegal immigrants in California …”

In any case, Herda’s study opens the door to a number of fascinating research questions, and clearly there is a great deal of research that is necessary about immigration reform.

About the Author


R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

In Print:

New Faces, New Voices: The Hispanic Electorate in America


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