Touching a nerve: Affect and the reception of an academic paper

I’ve been fortunate enough since being at the Library of Congress to interview Robb Willer, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, a couple of times[i]. (He’s been a great help in my research, and I’d like to thank him here). Amongst other things, Robb is interested in how terrorism affects US politics, in particular the public’s support for the sitting president. In 2004, as a 27-year old PhD student, Robb published “The effects of government-issued terror warnings on presidential approval ratings”; a short paper in a relatively little-known online journal, Current Research in Social Psychology. Cornell University, where Robb was then, released a press release to accompany its publication[ii], which got picked up and transmitted by various wire services. In short, the paper suggested that elevations in the Homeland Security Advisory System (the former colour-coded terror alert system) were causing temporary boosts in the polls for President George W. Bush. Moreover, the alert changes not only increased general support for the President, but also seemed to make people look more favourably on his handling of the economy[iii]. Despite its topicality (it came out barely a month before the 2004 presidential elections) and manifestly interesting findings, there was little reason to think that the paper would make waves beyond the academic field it immediately concerned. Robb was still an early-career researcher, and even the most interesting academic papers often need a “big” journal to take-off. The reception to Robb’s paper, though, was a little different.

Within days, Robb was getting calls for interviews from some of America’s biggest media outlets. The paper’s findings got coverage on National Public Radio and the Today Show; the Washington Post and USA Today; the Guardian (UK) and Fox News. In total, over a hundred newspaper articles covered the research, from the LA Times to the Times of India (the latter having the largest circulation of any English-language paper). A few years later, when former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge claimed in his memoirs that there had been pressure from some in the cabinet to raise the alert level (without the intelligence to justify it), he would cite Willer’s article:

“Opponents charged that the president benefited politically whenever he turned the nation’s attention to national security.” Ridge said. “Indeed, that phenomenon was quantified by a Cornell University study that tracked 131 Gallup polls between 2001 and 2004 and found that the president’s approval rating increased by nearly three percentage points each time the government issued a terror alert.” (Ridge, 2009: 113).

The complete and fascinating story of Robb’s paper, from inception to reception, will have to wait for my thesis, but what I want to think about briefly here, is why the paper got so much traction? I’ve gone back through the historical record and can find no suggestion (in print media, or elsewhere) that the alerts might have been used for political ends prior to Robb’s paper (it should be noted here that Robb’s work does not suggest that the alerts were deliberately manipulated, only that they had a beneficial effect on President Bush’s approval). Clearly, though, the idea that they might have been touched a nerve in the popular consciousness. Robb suggests that this idea WAS to be found in general conversation and online fora at the time, and that these were some of the inspirations for his paper, but nothing concrete was ever published. It existed, then, in thoughts and feelings; the odd forum post here, the odd snippet of conversation there; another example, perhaps, of the politics of fear that many claim dominated this period. And the message clearly got around, because by the time Robb published his paper in October, 2004, his findings weren’t dismissed as fancy, but became one of the most reported articles in the history of sociology.


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