Public Opinion and the Psychologies of Threat

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A growing body of evidence suggests a strong association between perceptions of threat and conservatism, yet little work specifies the precise psychological mechanisms connecting the two. Integrating perspectives from across the psychological sciences, we argue that conservative responses emerge from intuitive processes geared towards solving evolutionary problems associated with particular kinds of threats and, hence, vary systematically from one threat to another. We label this learned threat management. In addition, we also identify the simultaneous operations of an intuitive threat-management process, which leads to support for any policy that ostensibly offers protection, whether this policy can reasonably be designated as liberal or conservative. We test these predictions in survey experiments in the United States and Denmark using realistic news stimuli about disease and crime threats. Our findings support the simultaneous existence of threat-general and threat-specific processes underlying public opinion when reacting to threats.