Public Reactions to Terrorist Threats

Interesting research:

For the last five years we have researched the connection between times of terrorist threats and public opinion. In a series of tightly designed experiments, we expose subsets of research participants to a news story not unlike the type that aired last week. We argue that attitudes, evaluations, and behaviors change in at least three politically-relevant ways when terror threat is more prominent in the news. Some of these transformations are in accord with conventional wisdom concerning how we might expect the public to react. Others are more surprising, and more disconcerting in their implications for the quality of democracy.

One way that public opinion shifts is toward increased expressions of distrust. In some ways this strategy has been actively promoted by our political leaders. The Bush administration repeatedly reminded the public to keep eyes and ears open to help identify dangerous persons. A strategy of vigilance has also been endorsed by the new secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano.

Nonetheless, the breadth of increased distrust that the public puts into practice is striking. Individuals threatened by terrorism become less trusting of others, even their own neighbors. Other studies have shown that they become less supportive of the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans. In addition, we found that such effects extend to immigrants and, as well, to a group entirely remote from the subject of terrorism: gay Americans. The specter of terrorist threat creates ruptures in our social fabric, some of which may be justified as necessary tactics in the fight against terrorism and others that simply cannot.

Another way public opinion shifts under a terrorist threat is toward inflated evaluations of certain leaders. To look for strong leadership makes sense: crises should impel us toward leadership bold enough to confront the threat and strong enough to protect us from it. But the public does more than call for heroes in times of crisis. It projects leadership qualities onto political figures, with serious political consequences.

In studies conducted in 2004, we found that individuals threatened by terrorism perceived George W. Bush as more charismatic and stronger than did non-threatened individuals. This projection of leadership had important consequences for voting decisions. Individuals threatened by terrorism were more likely to base voting decisions on leadership qualities rather than on their own issue positions or partisanship. You did read that correctly. Threatened individuals responded with elevated evaluations of Bush’s capacity for leadership and then used those inflated evaluations as the primary determinant in their voting decision.

These findings did not just occur among Republicans, but also among Independents and Democrats. All partisan groups who perceived Bush as more charismatic were also less willing to blame him for policy failures such as faulty intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.


A third way public opinion shifts in response to terrorism is toward greater preferences for policies that protect the homeland, even at the expense of civil liberties, and active engagement against terrorists abroad. Such a strategy was advocated and implemented by the Bush administration. Again, however, we found that preferences shifted toward these objectives regardless of one’s partisan stripes and, as well, outside the U.S.

Nothing surprising here. Fear makes people deferential, docile, and distrustful, and both politicians and marketers have learned to take advantage of this.

Jennifer Merolla and Elizabeth Zechmeister have written a book, Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public. I haven’t read it yet.

Posted on November 16, 2009 at 6:39 AM β€’ 17 Comments


Derob β€’ November 16, 2009 8:46 AM

It would be nice to read a peer reviewed scientific paper produced by Merolla and Zechmeister, in particular one on their experiments. I was unable to find one, though this is probably due to not trying very hard. If anyone has links, please share them.

Chasmosaur β€’ November 16, 2009 9:29 AM

I’m wondering if there’s a geographic bias, as well.

I’m from DC via NYC, and while I admit 9/11 shook me, I know a lot of people living in DC at the time – including myself – resisted some of the changes that were pushed through (the road closures, the bag searches and metal detectors at all Fed buildings, including the Smithsonian or the outlying buildings in the suburbs). On top of the increases in security through the 80’s and 90’s, it just seemed like overkill. Especially galling were the special restrictions on National Airport flights, because AA77 flew out of Dulles, not National. (Though I admit I like the 30-minute-flight-perimeter-stay-in-your-seat rule – it makes the plane quieter for 30 minutes or so πŸ˜‰ )

If you live somewhere that’s inherently been under a terrorist threat or is perceived as a target, do you shake off the fear faster or react differently?

Hermann β€’ November 16, 2009 9:35 AM

This study seems to confirm what Hermann Goering famously said:

But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. …voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Lazlo β€’ November 16, 2009 9:49 AM

I wouldn’t say there’s nothing surprising. I think the finding that terrorism negatively affects the perception of gay Americans quite surprising. I would have expected the opposite – when differences in religious ideologies are causing actual death, it would seem that relatively nonviolent differences in sexual orientation would seem entirely trivial in comparison. I’m surprised that’s not the case.

paul β€’ November 16, 2009 9:57 AM

Given the political climate around 2004, they may be missing a confounding phenomenon, to wit the desire of people who were political adherents of a particular leader to believe that the terrorist threat was real and omnipresent. I don’t know how you would tease out the people whose desire for a Big Daddy and for beating up on The Other conditioned their responses to terrorism stories from the ones where it was the fear of terrorism that led to the other responses.

Jason β€’ November 16, 2009 10:00 AM


I imagine the projected hatred onto homosexuals is based on the same fear of “other” that leads to hatred of Muslims.

It isn’t that someone is “gay” or even “muslim”. It is just that that person isn’t like you and the circle of perception you have.

Different = bad

Clive Robinson β€’ November 16, 2009 11:03 AM

@ Lazlo, Jason,

“I think the finding that terrorism negatively affects the perception of gay Americans quite surprising.”

I’m not overly surprised you could call it the “Admiral Duncan” effect (after the London “gay” Pub that was bombed).

After the bombing Pubs that had mixed clientle became polarised after the event. Those people who where gay or wanted to show “solidarity” attended those pubs. Other patrons went to other pubs.

I suspect that if you percieve a sub set of the community is at risk from indescriminate violance, you probably calculate that your risk of being hurt goes up by association. And therefore distance from such a group makes you safer.

If you think about it gays are effectivly “targets” for extreamists currently (based on hate preaching etc). Therefore it is not that surprising that some people would change their attitudes or in some cases vocalise their prejudices more.

Wikipedia has a page on the “Admiral Duncan”,

Nostromo β€’ November 16, 2009 12:34 PM

The premise of the “research” is wrong: it’s not the terrorism that affects public opinion, it’s the way the media report the terrorist threats.

Between 1972 and 1997, IRA terrorism in mainland Britain killed hundreds of people in dozens of attacks. But the public response was basically to ignore the terrorists and continue life as normal. The government’s response (under 5 different Prime Ministers) was to try to contain the threat by specific security measures. In the end, the IRA basically gave up because apart from killing people, it wasn’t accomplishing anything.

kangaroo β€’ November 16, 2009 1:15 PM

How do we know it’s not the reverse? That docile, deferential “George Bush — Superman!” people are simply more willing to say what they already believe, since other folks will give them a pass due to the threat?

Do we know that folks who weren’t that way become that way — or is it that the sheep bray louder and the rest of us complain less about it (in a vicious circle) under threat?

b β€’ November 16, 2009 1:29 PM

It’s tribal. Early human lived in tribes that had to quickly rally in times of danger. The terrorist warnings trigger the same part of the mind in modern humans, and the tribe will rally.

The tribals will rally around whomever they see as their leader and will turn on anyone they see as outside the tribe. It doesn’t matter what label or why the “outsider” is outside. Gay, Muslim, Immigrant, whatever, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the tribal views them as outside of the tribe.

Same with the views of the leader. Anyone who saw Bush as their leader would rally to him, regardless of affiliation within the tribe.

I live just outside of New York. Most people I know in the New York area are far less afraid of terrorism than people living in the heartland. At first, it doesn’t make sense, until you look at it tribally. The New York area is very cosmopolitan. Our “tribe” has been too diluted. The tribal danger triggers are much harder to push when the tribe is so diverse. It’s impossible to tell who the outsider could be.

Smaller areas are much more conducive. Their are fewer people and less diversity, which means outsiders are more easily recognized and the tribe is much easier to rally.

anon mouse β€’ November 16, 2009 7:00 PM

“In studies conducted in 2004, we found that individuals threatened by terrorism perceived George W. Bush as more charismatic and stronger than did non-threatened individuals.”

Is it just me, or is attributing any sort of causal relationship to that statement very misleading? It seems pretty obvious to me that those individuals who would respond as feeling threatened by terrorism are also likely to be GWB supporters…. (and, critically, probably were GWB supporters prior to 9/11 and the constant focus on terrorism nowadays).

Curtis β€’ November 16, 2009 7:07 PM

The only criticism I would offer would be to change the title of the book to “Republic at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public.” The word democracy is not contained in the constitution for a very good reason. The mob rule of democracy is the tool that politicians today employ to destroy individual rights, the foundation of our political system. We need to remember the line in the pledge of allegiance “… and to the Republic, for which it stands …” and refuse to be terrorized by the majority mob into giving up our rights in the name of security.

Duff β€’ November 17, 2009 8:31 PM

Perception of leadership is relative and fickle. If the democrats ran a charismatic candidate in 2000 or 2004, Bush would have looked like an idiot.

Think of Boris Yeltsin in Russia. He was a party guy who behaved oddly and wasn’t exactly a smooth character. But in 1990 he had the balls to climb up on a tank and face the old hardliners on international TV. He displayed vitality and energy and rode that wave to leadership.

Bush did the same thing after 9/11. The Democrats never found anyone with that kind of energizing charisma. (Remember, Obama wasn’t an establishment candidate.)

S β€’ November 18, 2009 2:41 AM

I think we have to be careful here.

“Fear makes people deferential, docile, and distrustful…”

Um, except it does make them MORE trusting of authority. That’s not distrustful – I think the term you want there is ‘xenophobic’.


martinr β€’ November 18, 2009 6:02 AM

“…it’s not the terrorism that affects public opinion, it’s the way the media report the terrorist threats…”

Not just the media though; politicians exploit this quite deliberately too. Taking a UK example, Geoff Hoon* on Question Time October ’08, when asked how far he’d go to restrict civil liberties, said β€œTo stop terrorists killing people in our society, quite a long way actually. If they are going to use the internet to communicate with each other and we don’t have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people.”

It’s disheartening the way we (in UK) seem to have forgotten the lessons from the IRA.

  • For non-UK readers, Hoon has held various ministerial posts. I think he was a government minister at the time of the quote.

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