With the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 two weeks away, anyone waiting in a long airport security line might imagine that we’re better at stopping terrorism than we were a decade ago. But according to “A policy maker’s dilemma: Preventing terrorism or preventing blame,” a recent study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, politicians might not have much incentive to prepare for the most likely kind of terrorist attacks.

“Policy makers face a delicate balancing act between keeping the public safe and keeping the public happy,” write co-authors Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Alexander Todorov of Princeton and Howard Kunreuther of the University of Pennsylvania. In surveys, they found that people “thought that terrorists would be more likely to strike a civilian object with a truck loaded with explosives than a hijacked airplane,” but “were more willing to blame the government for failing to prevent the latter than the former attack.” This creates perverse incentives, encouraging politicians to ignore real threats and offer protection from threats that are far less realistic.

How might this affect, say, how the Department of Homeland Security allocates its resources? Though another dramatic plot such as Sept. 11 is unlikely, DHS might spend money protecting airports because people “ascribe more blame in situations when the blameworthy outcome elicits greater negative emotions.” Even if it’s easier for a terrorist to mail anthrax or target Fort Hood, voters will sooner punish a politician after a more spectacular attack, even if the chances of such an attack were small. For agencies such as DHS and the public, this is a lose-lose.

“The psychological nature of people’s perceptions and processing of risk information may have a perverse policy effect on their safety,” the study says. “The public’s tendency to evaluate anti-terror activities on the outcome and not on the quality of policy makers’ decisions creates incentives for policy makers to deviate from a purely risk-based approach.”

Is there a way out? “We urge a dialogue with policy makers that enables them to explore ways in which they can effectively make decisions that are not in their best interests but in the best interests of their constituents,” the authors conclude. Unfortunately, we might see the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 before that happens.

moyerj@washpost.com

Justin Moyer is Outlook’s editorial aide.

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Why America’s leaders are most likely to focus on the least likely terrorist threats