Terrorism has emerged in the last decade as one of the most critical issues with which governments must contend, topping most Western nations’ agendas in terms of resource allocation. For example, some reports indicate the United States has spent more than one trillion dollars waging the “War on Terror” – money and resources that may have been allocated very differently in the absence of such threats. Earlier this year, the United States was once again reminded of how vulnerable the public is to terrorism when radicalized brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after months of planning, allegedly carried out a bombing attack during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds. More recently, in August of this year, the Obama administration responded to intercepted al Qaeda messages of credible terrorist threats in the Middle East and North Africa by closing 22 U.S. diplomatic facilities in Muslim nations and issuing a global travel alert. These and other events very often receive extensive media coverage, which subsequently influence people’s worldviews and the manner in which they adapt to their immediate environment.

Behavioral scientists have been studying the psychological effects of terrorism intensely since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and good data is emerging as to the immediate and longer-term effects of terrorism. However, in many of these cases, psychological impact is measured following a discrete attack or event, which is then thought to elicit a specific type of reaction (e.g., anxiety or fear). While this body of research provides a framework for beginning to understand the impact of discrete terrorist attacks, questions remain as to the psychological impact of ongoing threat. Following on this, and given how terrorism has altered the political and social landscape in the United States and globally, some have also begun to question how psychological reactions (such as fear and anger) impact political process, and whether such reactions can be manipulated for political purpose.

The fact is that fear, or the anticipation of future terrorism, is a primary psychological weapon underlying acts of terrorism. This anticipatory fear, or worry, can itself have serious effects on a variety of domains including political beliefs and support for certain governmental policies, making decisions about where to live and work, whether to travel into certain environments for any reason and how people generally engage in activities of daily living. However, there is also considerable heterogeneity in people’s emotional responses to terrorism and terrorism threats. Understanding the impact of these emotional processes on individuals and societies can be crucially important in evaluating terrorism threats and determine who warnings should be constructed and disseminated.

We recently explored the psychological effects of terrorism and ongoing threat, as well as the impact these dynamics have on political process in two recently published volumes. The Psychology of Terrorism Fears(Oxford University Press, 2012) seeks to complement existing research focusing on the psychological effects of terrorist attacks by also examining how people are affected by ongoing threat, and works to present a more integrated model for understanding how terrorism affects people. In the follow-up volume, The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears(Oxford University Press, 2013), we, in collaboration with an international cast of scholars, focused on how terrorism fears and threat alerts can influence political engagement and trust in government policy making, as well as the government’s ability to generate public support for its policies.


How Do Threats of Terrorism Influence Individuals?

Much has been written about the psychological impact of terrorist attacks. This work has focused on the immediate increase in psychiatric symptoms and disorders and the relatively quick normalization of psychopathology in the months and years following an attack. However, these trends, in many ways, may mask the underlying sense of fear and worry that many people have about terrorism threats, or future terrorist attacks. In fact, people may continue to fear terrorism in meaningful ways long after a terrorist attack or threat has passed. This lingering fear varies across time and context, affecting people in both negative and positive ways. Although these symptoms would not necessarily reach the level of a psychiatric disorder and require treatment, they may still significantly influence daily activities such as decisions about employment, who to socialize with, use of public transportation such as buses and trains, congregating in public and crowded places and traveling on an airplane.

That, of course, does not mean that terrorism threats have the same effect on everyone. Most people arguably respond to threats of future terrorism in a rational and constructive manner. Very compelling research has also shown that whether an individual’s response is primarily fear versus anger (and it should be noted that emotional responses may fluctuate within individuals) may have a significant impact on their behavior. In the context of anger, people tend to exhibit greater levels of optimism and preference for confrontation, whereas with fear comes greater pessimism and preference for using conciliatory measures to de-escalate conflict. Moreover, research has highlighted the paradox of how terrorism fears can negatively affect some people and societies, while at the same time serving as the central force in strengthening resilience and fostering post-traumatic growth.


How Do Threats of Terrorism Influence Political Processes and Entire Societies?

The idea that exposure to terrorism threat (and the psychological reactions that ensue) affect political engagement, trust in government policy making and the government’s ability to generate public support for its policies, is not new. The evidence indicates that people place larger degrees of trust in their government’s ability to keep them safe from future violence following large-scale terrorist attacks. For example, research has noted that the public’s trust in the U.S. government increased markedly following the 9/11 attacks, but that over time these trends have declined.

Some scholars have argued that when high levels of emotionality are activated through threat alerts it impacts how people engage their respective political systems, from the politicians they elect to office to the policies they support. However, as we mentioned, not all emotions are created equal. For example, various studies have demonstrated the differential effects of fear and anger on people’s trust in their government and support for different security policies. Fear, in comparison to anger, has been associated with a greater degree of perceived risk, as well as preferences for more precautionary, conciliatory measures to reduce external threat. The feeling of anger may actually lead people to experience a greater locus of control over their environment, whereas fear is associated with less perceived control.

The emotional dynamics are complex and influenced by other factors such as political ideology. For example, research suggests that individuals identifying as Democrats may, when primed with high levels of emotion in the context of terrorism, be more skeptical towards policies aimed at improving a sense of security when Republicans are perceived as the ones making these policies. Cultural differences in support for governmental policies also emerge as a function of emotional reactions. Societies where there are high levels of baseline trust in the government may respond differently to terror threats than societies where there is a lower level of trust. The case of the Norwegian terror event of July 22, 2011 (when Anders Behring Breivik, fueled by his far-right militant ideology and Islamophobia, killed 77 people in a premeditated terror attack) is particularly interesting in this context. Researchers from Norway found that increased support for the government in the aftermath of this terror attack did not arise as a result of public fear, instead high levels of existing institutional trust may have buffered against the negative effects of fear and the elevated terror threat level. In so-called “high-trust” societies, this trust, instead of fear, may then have very different effects than what is common in “low-trust” societies, creating higher levels of national togetherness and strengthened interpersonal and institutional trust. Ongoing threats and fear also have the potential to shape culture over time, such as in the protracted conflict situations in Northern Ireland and the Israel. In these societies, fear is arguably a powerful motivating force for pursuing a perceived sense of safety and security.


A New Strategy

Using fear, and the emotions of the public, as a means of achieving some political goal is not a new strategy. During the Cold War era, for example, Sen. Joseph McCarthy used the threat of communism to inject fear into the political process, manipulating public and political views of who could be trusted and who were secret communist spies. More recently, President’s George W. Bush’s famous declaration of the War on Terrorism helped remind the public of the threat of terrorism, which was central to the success of his re-election campaign. Now, more than a decade past the 9/11 attacks, our society has changed in dramatic ways. These changes may reflect a sense of insecurity related to the potential threats we face, and have contributed to the development of a massive and integrated security infrastructure to keep us “safe” from these ambiguous threats. Some have even argued that we have become a “securitized” culture, with other national priorities taking a backseat to complex and ever-expanding national security priorities.

What is important, however, is to understand the complex array of factors that have contributed to this evolution. Increasing our awareness and understanding of the significant impact emotional processes have on individuals and societies in decision making can be crucially important in determining how terrorism threats and warnings are constructed and disseminated. Fostering a sense of control and agency within these messages, by presenting basic steps for preparedness and focus, may help decrease unwarranted fear.

For more information, please see Sinclair, S. J. & Antonius, D. (Eds.) (2013). The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears. New York: Oxford University Press and Sinclair, S. J. & Antonius, D. (2012). The Psychology of Terrorism Fears. New York: Oxford University Press.


About the Authors:

Daniel Antonius, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Director of Forensic Research in the Department of Psychiatry at University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Samuel Justin Sinclair, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and The Director of Research at the Psychological Evaluation and Research Laboratory (The PEaRL) at the Massachusetts General Hospital.