Part 2: Environmental Variables and Social Connections

Alan Tabor
5 min readFeb 1, 2018

1. WTF: Environmental Variables

The Columbian Chemical plant explosion (see Part 1) seemed to be a motiveless hoax. No one made money. No one stayed fooled. Plant neighbors did not drive by that evening and say, “Damn, they got that fixed fast!”

So what’s going on here? Why would the Russians bother with something so expensive but apparently pointless?

This and the related hoaxes did have one consistent impact: they added to what might be called the ambient fear factor.

The feeling of being under threat has political consequences.

2 Data Point: Ideological Entrenchment

The feeling that we’re in a hostile situation tends to push us towards ideological extremes, entrenches us in our ideologies (“don’t give an inch!”), and hollows out the middle.

Pacific Standard Magazine gives a layman’s summary of recent research in Adversity Inspires Politically Polarized Attitudes. The abstract of the research paper this is based on is pretty clear as well:

Many studies find that when made to feel uncertain, participants respond by affirming importantly held beliefs…. [Further, their study found] there was a positive relationship between adversity and the tendency to strongly affirm and polarize their positions. Results suggest that adverse life events may lead to long-lasting changes in one’s tendency to polarize one’s political attitudes.

I’d like to restate that.

  • Uncertainty tends to cause folks to dig into their core beliefs. (Makes sense, right? They/we need some sort of touchstone in trying times.)
  • A life of adverse events tends to create folks with polarized attitudes.

I’d noticed the latter point myself when comparing folks I worked construction with in Texas with similar folks in San Francisco Bay Area. Men with a very similar embattled stance and class background would adamantly advance precisely opposite politics but for identical reasons. The espoused views were generally shared with, but more extreme than, the prevalent local worldview.

3 Data Point: Disease and Authoritarian Leaders

The feeling of being under threat pushes the public toward authoritarian leaders even if the threat is unrelated to

Alan Tabor

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