Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain

Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain

In December 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Exeter’s Professor Dan Stevens to discuss and reflect on his work conducted on the ‘Public Perceptions of Threat in Britain: Security in an Age of Austerity’ project. This work was funded by the ESRC.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background, and how you came to work on perceptions of threat in Britain? 

 Professor Dan Stevens: I am British, but I have always been interested in American politics. I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American politics, and then moved to America to do my PhD. While I was in America, I began to specialize in political behaviour and political psychology. I then became interested in the psychology of public opinion, first in America, and then more broadly. A lot of my early work focused on elections, and when I came back to the UK to work at Exeter in 2007, I began working on British politics as well.  

At Exeter, I began working with Dr Nick Vaughan-Williams. He was one of those colleagues I would chat with in the corridors whose interests were a long way apart from my own – he is a theory-driven critical IR scholar – and yet we found that there was an overlap in the sorts of questions we were both interested in, and we realised there was a possibility for us to collaborate while exploring the psychology of security threats.  

What were the key aims of your project on the perception of threat in Britain? 

Nick and I approached this project from very different directions. From the IR perspective, he was frustrated with the elite-driven focus on security threats and securitization. He wanted to focus on writing about the everyday and citizen involvement in identifying and mitigating security threats. To that end, his elements of the project explored what everyday security threats look like for individuals and ordinary citizens. He asked whether there is – and to what extent there might be – overlaps between the security threats perceived by ordinary citizens and those which are focused upon by governments. Meanwhile, my focus was on the psychological dimension of these questions. I felt that we did not know a lot about the threats and people’s perceptions of threats such as terrorism or the climate emergency beyond certain situations where the threat becomes a ‘threat of the moment’. When there is a terrorist attack, the aftermath sees a lot of survey questions about people’s perceptions of the terrorist threat, for example. However, we know less about what the overall picture looks like when you step back and look at public perceptions of a whole range of threats, as the government does in its national security strategies.  

We also became interested in place-based threats, and differences in perceptions between threats to the world, threats to your country, threats to your community, and threats to the individual. It was not clear from previous research whether people perceived threats differently in these ways, or whether some people would feel chronically threatened by the sheer number of threats.  

How did you go about conducting this work? 

The project was conducted in three stages, using a relatively novel research design. We conducted ten mini focus groups around the country, then conducted a survey with 2000 respondents, and then did another ten mini focus groups with new respondents. The second set of focus groups was an opportunity to go back and explore what we had learnt from the survey results. We decided on using these mini focus groups, which had three people per group, because we were torn between long interviews with individuals and the opportunities to explore the dynamics involved in discussing threats. Focus groups offer more opportunities for people to challenge one another and interact and keeping the focus groups small gave a lot of time for interaction between people.  

Can you tell me a bit about the findings which emerged from the project? 

We found that some threats – such as terrorism – were not particularly salient to individuals or their communities but were instead perceived as collective threats. Meanwhile other threats – such as the economic threat posed by the financial crash – were salient both at the individual and global level. We also saw a lot of variation in threat perception, and in how perceived threats influence attitudes and preferences, such as the attributes someone looks for in a leader during periods where there are threats to the nation. 

We also found that some threats – like a perceived terrorism threat from immigration – were associated with the stereotyping of minorities and were connected to a preference for more spending on defense, more aggressive policies, and stronger leaders. In contrast, other perceived effects – including the threat from the economy and the threat from climate change – had the opposite pattern of effects.  

Was there anything that emerged from this project that particularly surprised you? 

We found a much lower public awareness than expected of the way in which government perceives threats and the national security strategies that existed at the time. Roughly one in ten respondents had ever even heard of the National Security Strategy. Beyond that, we found that even among the small minority of respondents who had heard of the National Security Strategy, those who had heard of it were not reassured by it – instead, they saw more threats out there than the people who hadn’t heard about it.  

Can you tell me about some of the things that emerged from this project? Was your goal primarily to contribute to a body of theory through exploratory research, or were there also impact-driven outcomes from the work? 

Our primary goal was to conduct exploratory research, but we did write a book and a few journal articles about this project which generated interest from policymaking spaces. In the aftermath, we were contacted by the Cabinet Office and invited to talk through our results and potential applications for messaging around security. From there, we were invited to submit evidence to the UK Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, and my coinvestigator Nick has stayed involved in generating impact there, including through collaborating with the Home Office and a group called Rethinking Security.  

Would you have any key messages for policymakers based on this work? 

There is a lot out there that has been written about the modern security apparatus, including work on seeing ordinary citizens as stakeholders in addressing security threats. And yet, when you talk to ordinary people, they generally feel pretty excluded. Very few people could think of any security strategy that they had come across, for example. Now, with the covid-19 pandemic, I think the overall lesson for me is about the importance of messaging from government. When we conducted our research back in 2012, we asked people about a health pandemic and despite avian flu and swine flu and the messaging that existed around the possibility of pandemic threats, people just didn’t see it as a threat. People saw threats to health security as something that happens elsewhere – in Asia, in China, instead of seeing it as a threat which could occur on our shores. So, the messaging from government about this top tier security threat clearly was not adequate – or at the very least was not cutting through to people who tended to see it as scare mongering.  

Where has your research taken you in the decade since you finished working on this project? 

One of the themes that has emerged in my work during this period has been individual-level authoritarianism – how people’s attachment to groups and group conformity interacts with their perceptions of threats, and how that in turn affects political tolerance, tolerance of minorities, attitudes towards democracy, etc. With democratic backsliding occurring in so many parts of the world, those twin themes of authoritarianism and how perceptions of threats change or fail to change over time is very important. When perceptions of threat change, what causes contribute to that change? That is a question I do not have a definitive answer to yet. 

 Recently, I have also done some things on the covid-19 pandemic as well. This has included experimental work on how people perceive the threats posed by the pandemic – is it a threat to you, or to your society? So, we looked at food hoarding and people not being able to get toilet rolls and all that stuff. We also have been exploring the relationship between covid-19 and authoritarianism – most people see covid-19 as a threat, but it has not made those with authoritarian attitudes want government intervention in the US, for example. Finally, I have been doing some work on covid-19 and leadership – this was such a fascinating opportunity to look at elite psychology and the responses of leaders around the globe to a single issue. So, we looked at personality traits and how they might have affected how quickly leaders responded to the pandemic, and the types of actions they adopted.