The Structures of the Mind => Threat Perception

Much has been written about the social construction of international politics and of security threats.

Scholars associated with the philosophical variant of the Securitisation Theory (ST) have highlighted the role specific language can play in inter-subjectively uniting a securitising actor and an audience in treating a certain entity as an existential threat to a thing of value.

Underlying the specific language used is the notion of ‘speech act’ (developed from J.L. Austin’s illoctionary speech-act): the assumption that,
‘By saying something, something is being done’, i.e., the entity in question is re-framed as a security issue and a call to suspend the normal rules of politics and legitimise extra-ordinary measures is made.

According to this universalist view, threats are not out there in the world: they are socially constructed as a result of the actor intending to get the audience to know something and to produce a certain response.

But how do securitising actors embedded in different cultural contexts come to perceive entities in the world as dangerous in the first place? How do they make sense of incoming stimuli? How do the mind’s structures, including space and time, shape the perception of threat?

Sharing the CS’s commitment to agency, I seek to investigate the structures that underpin it, asking what happens in people’s heads and bodies when they come to view entities as threats and what is the influence of culture on these mental processes.

In linguistics terms, I’d like to shift the focus away from the mere use of language (pragmatics) to the conceptual structures that organise language (semantics).

I’d like to redirect the conversation about security threats towards the subjective perceiver of threat because, following Jackendoff (2012), I believe there is no other place to locate meaning other than in people’s heads.

When, why and how people perceive threats to their security?

Three fun, lighthearted questions I’ve been struggling with over the past few years.

I am interested in these questions because threat perception is a crucial element in the study, practice, and ethics of international relations.

As Janice Stein (2013) has noted, threat perception plays a central role in general theories of war, deterrence, compellence, alliance behaviour, and conflict-resolution.

As Raymond Cohen (1978) has argued, threat perception is the decisive intervening variable between action and reaction in international crisis.

And as Hook, Mason, and O’Shea (2015) have demonstrated, policies aimed at securing the state against perceived external threats can erode security at home – for some social groups more than others.

Yet while scholars have highlighted the importance of threat perception to international relations, no systematic, empirical and theoretical account of how humans understand and experience security threats and how they infer its intensity has surfaced. And, while most IR scholars have examined threat perceptions in cases that ultimately culminated in war, little empirical research has been done on perceptions of threat with non-violent outcomes. And yet to study threat perception systematically, this line of inquiry is critical (Jervis 1988).

Japan, a nation beset by significant and changing threat environments in the postwar period, remained free from international militarised conflict. It thus warrants further examination.

My PhD dissertation project investigated how defence and political elites as well as mainstream media and the general public in one country (Japan) perceived foreign, state-based threats (Soviet Union, China, and North Korea) over a period of five decades (1950-2000).

The analysis of the empirical record indicated that threat perceptions in Japan did not simply follow developments in the ‘real world’, and that pre-existing psychological dispositions including affect (like/dislike toward foreign countries), behavioral tendencies (whether to avoid or fight military conflict with foreign countries) and cognitive beliefs (how likely foreign countries were to use military force) determined to a large extent which foreign countries were perceived as security threats, and by whom.

The most interesting finding, however, pointed to a new direction: once leaders in-charge of assessing threats to Japan’s national security formed an adversarial psychological attitude toward a foreign country (say, the Soviet Union), they inferred the intensity of the threat based on the abstract concepts of space and time.

The implications of these findings for international politics are noteworthy, suggesting that under certain conditions, how leaders think of foreign, state-based threats is mediated by the structures governing the human mind in distinctive ways.

Drawing on research into this basic machinery of the human mind, led by cognitive scientists operating across linguistics, neuroscience, cultural psychology and comparative psychology, I would like to identify whether there are specific pathways leading from these abstract concepts, or structures, to the perception of threat in the international system, and whether these vary across cultures and individuals.

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