The Threat Illusion

More from the annals of selective attention and confirmation bias, now in the journal Psychological Science.

The umbrella phenomenon is the Frequency Illusion: if your attention is drawn to some phenomenon, it’s likely to appear to you to be very frequent, all around you. Then in the special case of the Out-Group Illusion, in which your attention is drawn to a phenomenon associated with a group you don’t belong to (which then appears to you to be characteristic of that group and especially frequent there). Now in the even more special case of what I’ll call the Threat Illusion, in which your attention is keenly drawn to a phenomenon associated with an out-group you perceive as being threatening to you (which then appears to be not only characteristic of that group but extraordinarily frequent there).

A Frequency Illusion cartoon (under the more colorful label of Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, a name based on one example of the effect, the sudden omnipresence of the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s name):

The journal article. From the Association for Psychological Science (of which I am, proudly, a Fellow, so I get regular reports on its publications): “”They’re Everywhere!”: Symbolically Threatening Groups Seem More Pervasive Than Nonthreatening Groups”, by Rebecca Ponce de Leon, Jacqueline R. Rifkin, and Richard P. Larrick (all associated with Duke Univ., Rifkin now at the Univ. of Missouri – Kansas City), in Psychological Science first published 5/9/22:

Abstract: The meaning of places is socially constructed, often informed by the groups that seem pervasive there. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania is sometimes pejoratively called “Jew-niversity of Pennsylvania,” and the city of Decatur, Georgia, is disparagingly nicknamed “Dyke-atur,” connoting the respective pervasiveness of Jewish students and gay residents. Because these pervasiveness perceptions meaningfully impact how people navigate the social world, it is critical to understand the factors that influence their formation. Across surveys, experiments, and archival data, six studies (N = 3,039 American adults) revealed the role of symbolic threat (i.e., perceived differences in values and worldviews). Specifically, holding constant important features of the group and context, we demonstrated that groups higher in symbolic threat are perceived as more populous in a place and more associated with that place than groups lower in symbolic threat. Ultimately, this work reveals that symbolic threat can both distort how people understand their surroundings and shape the meaning of places.

It should be clear from the abstract that the authors’ larger interest is in topology ‘the study of places and their cultural meanings’ (yes, there are other important senses of topology, for instance in mathematics).

Meanwhile, my larger interest is in everyday reasoning, especially with respect to linguistic features. (And I should admit that I chose to post on this topic today because it is about as far as I could get from the bodies of grade-school kids mangled beyond recognition by fire from an assault rifle and the astounding hypocrisy of politicians with bloody hands.)

Illusional background. Two of my 2005 postings to Language Log.

— from my 8/7/05 posting “Just between Dr. Language and I”, about the Recency Illusion and the Frequency Illusion:

the Frequency Illusion: once you’ve noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even “all the time”.  Your estimates of frequency are likely to be skewed by your noticing nearly every occurrence that comes past you.  People who are reflective about language — professional linguists, people who set themselves up as authorities on language, and ordinary people who are simply interested in language — are especially prone to the Frequency Illusion.

Since my business is noticing stuff, linguistic and social, I’m more likely than the average bear to fall prey to the Frequency Illusion. But everybody is inclined to be afflicted, thanks to selective attention (amplified by confirmation bias).

— from my 8/17/05 posting “More illusions”, about the Adolescent Illusion and the Out-Group Illusion:

[a broad] effect, in which people pay attention selectively to members of groups they don’t see themselves as belonging to and so locate phenomena as characteristics of these groups: an Out-Group Illusion

… people sometimes are exquisitely sensitive to some linguistic feature in groups they don’t belong to, while missing it almost totally within their group. My current favorite example of the Out-Group Illusion is a contribution to a Linguist List discussion of “double be” last year (issue 15.535, 2/9/04) [the linguistic feature has since been dubbed Isis, for is is]. Jill Murray, writing from Australia, joins the conversation:

Just as I was reading this posting I had a phonecall from an Irish speaker who used the construction twice in a five minute conversation. It is not a feature of Australian English and I had never heard it before. Both were “The thing is, is that …”

Pat McConvell, who had been posting and writing about the phenomenon for over 15 years, then chimed in (issue 15.560, 2/12/04) to flatly contradict Murray’s subjective impressions: most of his examples were from Australian speech, and he collected new examples “virtually every day” from Australian-born colleagues, on the radio in Australia, etc. Murray was detecting the feature only when it came from people whose speech she was likely to judge as unusual, exotic, marked.

The judgments in the Psychological Science piece were about the populousness of groups perceived to be threatening, rather than about linguistic usages, but anecdotal evidence suggests that a study of judgments on linguistic usages would find a similar strong effect of perceived threat.

Since I belong to a group widely perceived to be threatening — homosexuals, gay men, queers, faggots, nancy-boys (I’ll accept, and embrace, pretty much any label you want to paste on me) — I have the anecdotes.

Some years ago, when I taught a Continuing Education course (for adults, offered in the evening), the evaluations of the course were uniformly positive on the course content, but a significant minority of the class complained vocally about my “constantly talking about my sexuality”, “pushing my sexuality in our faces”, and the like.

This because I often mentioned my (male) partner, who was not only a source of examples, but was himself a linguist and a teacher of linguistics. (In other courses, I mentioned my wife in similar fashion — she too was a linguist and a teacher of linguistics — without exciting any kind of response.) And because some of my examples came from lgbt discussion groups on the net. (Many came from language-related or music-related groups — again, without exciting any kind of response.)

Pretty clearly, the complainants had noticed virtually every single gay-related item, as if each one was a faggot shriek. Such items were threatening, because my queer identity was threatening. (I should note that, unless I’m wearing identifying symbols or slogans, I don’t read as gay — which means that I’m read as straight, so that those items did in fact constitute information about my sexuality. The problem was then that this information was unwelcome to some people in the class, in fact threatening, as if I represented the advance force of an army of crazed faggots come to rip society apart.)

But that’s anecdote. I’m now musing on how observational and experimental studies could detect such threat effects in linguistic judgments. (I am in no position to do any such studies myself, but I can still muse.)


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