13 October 2004

Will Terror Alert Level Show Its True Colors?

A Cornell sociologist says he has found scientific evidence that, whenever the government issues a terrorism alert, President Bush's approval ratings go up, even on domestic issues, such as his handling of the economy.

Robb Willer, assistant director of the Sociology and Small Groups Laboratory at Cornell -- someone else runs Large Groups? -- tracked about 26 occasions since 2001, including the major Code Orange alerts by the Department of Homeland Security, when some agency -- the FBI, the State Department or someone else -- announced a potential threat to Americans.

He tracked those with 131 Gallup polls taken during that time up until May. Willer, a doctoral candidate in sociology, found that, on average, each warning prompted a 2.75 point increase in the president's approval rating the following week.

Willer said yesterday that his research 'controlled' for various things such as the Afghan war, the beginning of the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam Hussein, though not for economic good news or other positive developments. His study says he conducted 'several time-series analyses' and used 'regression models' and stuff like that.

Government terrorist warnings boost President Bush's approval ratings, a Cornell sociologist finds
Willer's study is published in the Sept. 30 issue of Current Research in Social Psychology , a peer-reviewed online journal, at http://www.uiowa.edu/%7Egrpproc/crisp/crisp10_1.pdf .

When Willer linked the warnings to presidential ratings from 2001 to 2004, he found that each terror warning prompted, on average, a 2.75 point increase in the president's approval rating the following week.

Willer points to the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States as an example of the tendency. After Sept. 11, 2001, approval of Bush's job performance jumped from 51 percent on Sept. 10, 2001, to 86 percent on Sept. 15, 2001, in a Gallup Poll. Similarly, approval for Bush's handling of the economy jumped from 54 percent on July 11, 2001, to 72 percent on Oct. 5, 2001, says Willer.The findings are consistent with social identity theory, says Willer. The theory postulates that individuals tend to identify with a specific group to the extent that they see themselves as more similar to the members of the group than to its most significant out-group.

"Once individuals identify with a group, they develop significant biases toward their group, which help them maintain high self-esteem as members of their group. From the perspective of social identity theory, threats of attacks from foreigners increase solidarity and in-group identification among Americans, including feelings of stronger solidarity with their leadership," explains Willer.

When the out-group threat includes terror, Willer says that the social-identity effects are further heightened. He notes that his findings also are consistent with terror management theory, which indicates that threats involving mortality not only increase in-group biases but also nationalism. "This research suggests that individuals may respond to reminders of their mortality, like terror warnings, by supporting their current leaders," Willer says.

I always wondered why we hear so much abut threats at the same time as we hear so much about Coalition success in the War on Terror.

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