Eric Posner believes American fear of Syrian refugees can be explained by factors other than bigotry and nativism.
Psychologists who have studied these reactions have identified a number of factors that predict when people place excessive weight on a low risk. All of these factors point, with remarkable clarity, to the reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis.
People underestimate risks that are familiar, under their personal control, voluntarily incurred, ignored by the media, and well-understood. Driving an automobile is the best example. Everyone is accustomed to driving, feels in control of the car, and drives by choice. The extraordinarily high risk of an accident becomes background noise that no one pays attention to. By contrast, the opposite qualities are true for the risks that people fear the most, like meltdowns of nuclear reactors, airplane crashes, and cancer-causing food additives—and even more so for terrorism. The Syrian refugees are strangers from an unfamiliar and terrifying part of the world, and they will be placed in neighborhoods where people did not necessarily invite them in. The media has made much of them, particularly after the Paris attacks, and most Americans don’t understand the circumstances that drove them from their country.
People also overreact to risks that may produce especially dreaded or gruesome outcomes. While a car accident can produce mangled bodies, a terrorist attack is an especially gruesome event, often involving hostage-taking and terrifying helplessness. Terrorist attacks victimize children as well as adults, and there is no practical way to avoid them. People are more likely to tolerate risks when the accompanying benefits are clear—that’s why, in the end, people fly. But any benefits from refugee resettlement are remote, intangible, and indirect. People also fear risks of human origin (vaccines) more than risks of natural origin (the flu), and terrorism is very much the fruit of human ingenuity.
Until we have a way to bypass human emotion and augment our statistical reasoning, fighting irrational fears of the public will continue to feel like so much noble thrashing.
I just finished David Simon and Bill Zorzi's Show Me a Hero, a look at the attempt to desegregate Yonkers, and it felt like a mini season of The Wire, on a different subject. That should sound like high praise because it is.
The miniseries illuminates how racism is not merely a subset of what Posner identifies as irrational fear. Having experienced various forms of racism in my youth, I've encountered many a strain that seems to arise not from fear but a desire for dominance. It isn't a creature lashing out in defense or fear but but a monster on the offensive.