Post No.: 0677
In the aftermath of a major terrorist attack, the authorities must be seen to be doing ‘something’ to protect the public, and fast. If it’s still uncertain who the suspects are or they’re still at large then the public won’t feel safe or that justice has been served until someone is caught and punished for the offence. But this motivates the catching and punishing of ‘someone’ – anyone who’s suspected – even if they’re in fact innocent.
It can lead to being too quick to assume terror plots are everywhere. Dubious methods may be employed, such as sting operations that cross over into entrapment, or ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that cross over into torture. Innocent civilians get profiled, stopped, searched, arrested, and even shot when just catching a train (an innocent Brazilian man with ‘Mongolian eyes’ was mistaken for a Middle-Eastern terror suspect after the 7/7 London bombings) in the name of counter-terrorism.
In general, when people are witnessing distressing events happening around them, they can feel uncomfortable about doing nothing. The ‘action bias’ is doing something just because one feels like something must be done because stuff is happening around oneself. But although all improvement requires change, not all changes are improvements. This urge tends to happen during times of heightened stress, and the action tends to be something that only serves a short-term goal, at the possible expense of the long-term. (We should only change something if our ability to predict the future has changed, not merely because we know more about the past. This is because the past doesn’t necessarily predict the future e.g. a trend or boom may be about to end hence joining it now may be the wrong move.)
On the other paw, the ‘single action bias’ is when people, to alleviate a worry, take one or two affirmative actions but then take no further steps, presumably because the first one(s) succeeded in reducing their feelings of worry or guilt, like installing energy-saving light bulbs and recycling then believing that one’s environmental contribution is done. (A checklist of actions in a prominent place may help in this case. Alternatively, try offering people a series of tiered solutions that encourages them to incrementally increase their commitments e.g. to do x if they have a minute, and to do y if they have a whole day.)
Most people want to psychologically feel like they’re in control and making a difference to what affects or interests them – like shaking a fuzzy Polaroid picture even though the manufacturer themselves don’t recommend doing this.
Sometimes the ‘security theatre’ employed to give the impression of safety to citizens is an overreaction to the need for security in reality, or it may mean implementing policies that appear effective but aren’t actually so in reality.
For instance, the statistics for a baby being abducted is incredibly low, yet newborns are nevertheless electronically tagged with alarms – even though these wouldn’t really stop a determined baby thief anyway. So why bother with them? (This is an example of a ‘moral panic’ too.)
It’s because both fear and security are perceived – they may not be proportional to the reality i.e. the true statistical risks or needs. Yet it matters to parents that their feelings and perceptions of risk, and of the effectiveness of the security measures, are attended to and met. Humans are irrational creatures after all. It’s irrational because of the missed opportunity costs – abductions are incredibly rare and these tags cost money that could be better spent elsewhere in a child’s healthcare that presents greater risks and benefits. Some will argue that a baby is priceless, but that doesn’t mean anyone will have infinite amounts of resources to protect them – hence if we spend in one place, we can’t spend that money in other, possibly more statistically crucial, places.
Many employ a similar argument concerning anti-terrorism – terrorist attacks are incredibly rare but the costs of one happening can be regarded as extremely high. So governments and institutions are pressured into being seen to be doing something. And therefore anti-terrorism measures – no matter how expensive or intrusive they may be – reassure us and tend to our feelings and perceptions (unless they start to intrude in other areas we also regard as vital to our feelings and perceptions, like our sense of privacy).
It’s arguably the case that many of these anti-terrorism measures are just ‘theatre’ – that they’re ineffective in fighting terrorism but are nonetheless implemented to give us the illusion that we’re safer with them in place. The financial costs of these measures are considered worth it compared to using that public money to save many lives in other areas. Most people consider a death caused by terrorism far worse than a death caused by a road accident, for instance – even though the risk of dying from a road accident is far higher than from terrorism, and they both result in death. This concerns the subject of ‘dread risk’ – see Post No.: 0655.
Indeed, living in constant fear isn’t a healthy psychological state to be in, so it could be argued that relieving our fears, no matter how irrational they may be, is worth it. Again, both ‘risks from threats’ and ‘senses of security’ involve both a feeling/perception of it and its effectiveness, and the reality of it and its effectiveness – the emotional side, and the more rational side that’s guided by the statistics.
This way of thinking occurs in other domains too, like the emotional perception of how good a product is according to its premium branding versus the reality of how good it is compared to cheaper brands (marketing therefore matters), or having a chance of winning the lottery versus the negative expected value of playing.
So security theatre can be useful – perceptions are overridingly what really matter to the public. So even though something doesn’t actually provide citizens any real insurance or safety, the feeling of safety that something can provide can help them to live with less stress when they internally hold over-inflated, irrational and over-generalised fears, like the odds of being caught in a terrorist attack.
Of course, mere ‘security theatre’ isn’t good if a threat is material and hasn’t been over-exaggerated, because false senses of security can be costly. But in the day-to-day, perceptions are ultimately what matter to our minds.
Also, hope – whether genuine or fermented from theatre – can be taken as a cue to totally relax our own personal guards. Complacency can set in due to the single action bias, like feeling that there’s no longer any need to wear facemasks since vaccines have been rolled out.
While on this subject, ‘hygiene theatre’ was arguably present during the COVID-19 outbreak; albeit we didn’t know it at the time and were rightly prudent to do things like being extra careful about touching surfaces and constantly cleaning surfaces in 2020-2021. We only later learnt that the virus was more likely to transmit via fine droplets/aerosols carried through the air rather than on surfaces. (Having said this, these are still relatively decent habits to continue with during any time – unless taken too far.)
Some measures, like social distancing (especially between those who are talking or will hang around each other for a while) and ensuring ample fresh air ventilation, were/are effective. But with other measures, the theatre employed only gave the psychological impression of keeping us safe. They sometimes even possibly increased our material risk, like in the case of using acrylic plastic screens to divide spaces (e.g. in restaurants) because these may have stifled the flow of fresh air? Regular hand washing (ordinary soap will do) is crucial to protect against a multitude of diseases, but do it too often and there’s a risk of chapped hands and harmful bacteria and viruses becoming resistant to certain disinfectants over time.
As of posting, there’s still much to learn about SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, hence much to dispute about what was/is or wasn’t/isn’t mere ‘hygiene theatre’. A lower risk from surface transmission doesn’t mean a zero risk too. It takes multiple layers of furry defences to increase the chances of containing a pandemic because no measure is 100% effective alone – from vaccines, basic hygiene, testing, self-isolating if one experiences symptoms, contact tracing, and more. And how big is the actual opportunity cost for touching unfamiliar surfaces as little as possible?
Now facemasks were a divisive issue. At first, we wondered whether it was just hygiene theatre or truly effective? Because the coronavirus mostly transmits via aerosols, they were later concluded as effective. They can prevent hand-to-mouth contact too – it’s incredibly natural to occasionally touch our own faces. But are they still theatre if the wrong kinds of face coverings are used? They certainly are if they’re not worn properly.
Regardless of their efficacy, wearing one became symbolic of our collective consideration of others because they mainly stop oneself dispersing one’s potentially contagious droplets as far and as wide into the air, more than stop oneself breathing in other people’s expulsions. Other places that viruses can get into the body are the eyes, ears, wounds and other openings – so masks aren’t about protecting oneself as much as protecting others.
Meanwhile, refusing to wear one became symbolic of our individualistic freedom. At first, when PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies were limited – wearing the most effective masks if you weren’t in a frontline healthcare context or similar was considered selfish too. Hence theatre pertains to the social norms and political messages we intentionally or inadvertently signal to others too. The public, as well as governments, had to be seen to be doing the right things too regardless of the efficacy of the measure – and what was ‘right’ depended on our worldviews. Whether wearing a mask or not demonstrates solidarity depends on the immediate cultural norm.
People from East Asian countries that had experienced another relatively recent epidemic were already in the habit of wearing facemasks if they ever felt unwell and were in public places, even if all they had was a sniffle. Elsewhere, men are less likely to wear facemasks than women – perhaps due to the greater overconfidence, lack of compliance and lesser altruism of men compared to women on average? Making them mandatory increases compliance though. We’ve got to think of others, including not visiting family or going to work if we’re ill.
Wearing facemasks and lockdowns became a political issue when they should’ve been a straightforward health issue. On the one side, people believe that it’s about governments trying to control their populations and obstruct individual rights; and on the other, people understand that it’s about cooperative community protection, trying to follow the science or at least recognising that it’s not that arduous to wear a mask so one might as well if one can i.e. the costs are low regardless of the benefits (albeit there’s the potential plastic waste). Also, a risk may be low during any single day but becomes high across multiple days on aggregate.
…Summarising – our psychological feelings and perceptions matter, even if they’re irrational according to the real statistical risks and benefits. The public needs to feel safe and secure. Authorities also frequently face the dilemma of not wanting to make the public panic over a potentially false alarm versus expediently revealing a growing problem that’s real.
Hindsight will make what should’ve been done clearer, but we don’t live with that luxury. The government needs to be seen to be doing things – even if it’s just ‘theatre’ and an action might prove to arguably be the wrong one when looking back (including entering into an armed conflict in a foreign country to chase a terrorist organisation – but imagine if the USA just did nothing straight after 9/11?)
And we, the public, need to feel like we’re doing something too – even if a piece of ‘theatre’ gives us a false sense of security.
We need ways to sleep better at night.