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date: 30 June 2022

Public Perceptions of International Terrorismfree

Public Perceptions of International Terrorismfree

  • Nazli AvdanNazli AvdanUniversity of Kansas


Terrorist violence appeals to and pivots on the creation and dissemination of fear. In that respect, it hinges on public perceptions and threat manufacturing to have policy impact. Scholars have long recognized that terrorist actors appeal to multiple audiences, including the public audience. By sowing fear, actors hope that the public will put pressure on the target regime to enact policy concessions to militants or that policymakers, fearing the erosion of public support, will bend to the terrorists’ demands. Recognizing this, it behooves scholars to delineate the mechanisms that shape perceptions and parse the different types of emotional and cognitive responses that terrorist violence arouses. Violence inculcates a range of public responses, most notably, anxiety, fear, anger, and perceptions of threat. These responses may vary with individual demographics, such as gender and age, but are also guided by the political environment in which individuals are embedded. Variegated emotive responses have important policy consequences as distinct emotions are associated with different policy demands. On the whole, psychological reactions to terrorism underlie the effectiveness of terrorism and have downstream social, political, and cultural ramifications.


  • Conflict Studies
  • Foreign Policy
  • Political Communication
  • Political Sociology


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, spawned growing interest in the social sciences in public perceptions of terrorism. High-magnitude attacks, most prominently the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London attacks, added to the momentum, fueling interdisciplinary studies of public attitudes toward terrorism. The first stream of research devotes attention to how individuals respond to these hallmark tragedies of violence. Given the international prominence and repercussion of the 9/11 attacks, the bulk of scholarly attention has been on the psychological and sociopolitical consequences of international rather than domestic terrorism. Transnational terrorism is distinct from domestic terrorism in that its perpetrators and/or victims cross interstate borders, and it imposes global repercussions (Hoffman, 2006; Mickolus et al., 2016).

The first generation of research, published in the half decade following the 9/11 attacks, is defined by its focus on massive and lethal violent events imbued with international notoriety. Accordingly, these studies seek to uncover the short-term and enduring cognitive and emotional effects pursuant to lethal and sensational attacks that have already transpired (Galea et al., 2002; Miguel-Tobal et al., 2006; Schlenger et al., 2002; Schuster et al., 2001; Silver et al., 2002). They seek to document the psychological responses to terrorism, noting specifically the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in populations who have suffered well-publicized and fatal terrorist strikes (Canetti-Nisim et al., 2009). A related second stream of research attends to risk assessment, probing how individuals evaluate the probability that they or their community will be targeted in future attacks. In contrast to research investigating emotive and cognitive responses, this stream fixates on behavioral changes, asking respondents about how exposure to terrorism has reshaped their daily life. This research is motivated by two erudite objectives: managing public fear and unearthing the socio-psychological consequences of violence.

Since the early 2000s, research has advanced in several directions. First, scholars have nuanced earlier findings by parsing the different emotional responses to terrorism and outlining their implications for policy preferences (Huddy et al., 2005; Lerner et al., 2003). Second, scholars have turned to probing how terrorist events and perpetrator characteristics affect threat perceptions (Avdan & Webb, 2019) and the labeling of political violence as terrorism (D’Orazio & Salehyan, 2018; Huff & Kertzer, 2018). Third, a thriving research agenda investigates the political and social consequences of terrorism (Bar-Tal & Labin, 2001; Huddy et al., 2002, 2005; Skitka et al., 2004). Fourth, scholars investigate the attitudinal changes in societies vexed by chronic terrorism (Canetti-Nisim et al., 2009; Hobfoll et al., 2006, 2011; Hoffman & Kaire, 2020; Klar et al., 2002; Peffley et al., 2015).

A broader perspective on attitudes toward terrorism views terrorism as one among other forms of political violence—including insurgency, violent protests and riots, and hate crimes. In doing so, it takes a step back and inquires how perceptions of terrorism relate to perceptions of extremism. An important avenue of inquiry arising from this perspective concerns the labeling of violent events as incidents of terrorism. Rather than studying attitudes toward terrorist events, this line of research examines why the public perceives an act as terrorism in the first place, rather than some other form of violence (D’Orazio & Salehyan, 2018; Huff & Kertzer, 2018). This line of inquiry parallels studies of terrorist event characteristics, exploring how astrictive characteristics of perpetrators and the modes and weapons of attack affect the propensity of individuals to label acts as terrorism. The emerging conclusion is that bias toward perceived out-groups influences both psychological responses to terrorism and beliefs about what constitutes terrorism.

Although it is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the scholarship on public reactions to terrorism, the manuscript identifies two important streams of literature, one on determinants of attitudes and another on the consequences of psychological responses. It traces the trajectory of scholarship from the immediate post-9/11 environment to interdisciplinary work on trauma and emotion, to work within political science on perceptions and policy preferences. The piece identifies the common threads between perceptions of terrorism and policy preferences. It thus engages in a small foray into scholarship on perceptions of counterterrorism responses. Following that, the piece situates the concept of terrorism within the broader spectrum of political violence and covers debates on why some incidents are labeled as terrorism while other seemingly similar incidents are not.

Importance of Public Perceptions of Terrorism

A series of high-profile, high-magnitude attacks in the few years following 9/11—the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 London tube bombing—catalyzed burgeoning scholarship on public perceptions of terrorism (Bleich et al., 2003; Galea et al., 2002; Miguel-Tobal et al., 2006; Rubin et al., 2007; Schuster et al., 2001; Shalev & Freedman, 2005; Silver et al., 2002). The surge in interest implicitly recognizes the important role that public audiences play in terrorism. A well-vetted insight is that terrorism is political spectacle (Jenkins, 1980, 1981) or, put differently, propaganda by deed. Braithwaite (2013) wrote that the public provides the critical link between terrorist violence and concessions.

A long-held premise in the literature on terrorism is that the provocation of a sense of fear within a mass population is the mechanism linking motivations for the use of violence with the anticipated outcome of policy change. This assumption is the pivot point on and around which most theories of terrorism rest and revolve.

Indeed, although definitions of terrorism abound (Schmid, 2012), scholars concur on one integral definitional component, namely, that terrorism is violence, the effects of which expand beyond the immediate victims (Hoffman, 2006). These effects can cascade outward into the broader society because the costs of terrorism are not merely material but also socio-psychological (Friedland & Merari, 1985). The civilian citizen as the primary target of violence also figures importantly in widely accepted definitions of terrorism (Crenshaw, 1986). By instilling and disseminating fear among the target populace, terrorist actors aim to force the hand of governments. Public fears translate into concessions to terrorists either because the citizenry demands capitulation to militants’ demands from the government or because leaders, fearing loss of public support and backlash, choose to capitulate to these demands (Crenshaw, 1986).

Coercive Utility of Terrorism

Public perceptions are a critical cog in theories about why and how terrorism works. Perceptions circumscribe the coercive utility of terrorism. The public occupies twin roles, as potential target and audience of attacks (Kydd & Walter, 2006). Public perceptions of violence revolve around the latter role (Braithwaite, 2013). Even though public attitudes are not the direct focus of studies of effectiveness, mass fear as the propellant of policy responses to terrorism undergirds theories about why terrorism works (Chenoweth, 2010). Pape’s (2003, 2006) contention that democracies are particularly pliable when targeted in suicide operations rests on the belief that democracies are sensitive to the public’s abhorrence of the loss of civilian life. Democratic regimes are sensitive to casualties and, by extension, are cowed by terrorist violence. Abrahms (2006, 2007) rebutted this argument by maintaining that indiscriminate targeting simply renders targets of violence resolute and thereby backfires on terrorist actors. Abrahms’s argument likewise revolves on psychological responses to terrorism in that outrage at the carnage, coupled with fear of future attacks, hardens the target’s resolve against conceding to terrorists’ demands.

Abrahms’s and Pape’s debate tackled whether democracies are uniquely exposed to terrorism or, more broadly, whether they risk being targeted in attacks in response to their foreign policy. Pape avers in the affirmative, and Abrahms counters in the negative. For both scholars, however, public attitudes toward terrorism are central to whether states are pliant or resolute in the face of terrorists’ demands. The debate addresses the following question: Why do public reactions to terrorism merit scrutiny? This is a critical question, given that state, as the basic unit of analysis, dominates scholarship on terrorism. The debate sharpens focus on terrorism as a psychological—rather than a kinetic—weapon, whereby the creation and dissemination of fear determine the utility of terrorism (Hoffman & Kaire, 2020; Mueller, 2006).

Fear warps objective assessments of risk (Becker & Rubinstein, 2011) and may arouse exaggerated perceptions of risk (Treisman, 2011) and overestimations of average lethality (Kearns et al., 2019b). Consequently, the widespread fear that terrorism arouses outstrips the objective risks associated with terrorism (Wolfendale, 2007). Scholars have provided myriad answers to why public threat perceptions of terrorism are routinely inflated. Even though the objective probability of a terrorist strike is low, people remain out of touch with the reality of rare events. In a cognitive loophole labeled “probability neglect,” they ignore the low probability of a terrorist incident while overemphasizing its potential costs (Sunstein, 2003). This is in keeping with risk perceptions of other low-probability events –such as lightning strikes and airplane crashes—whereby people become preoccupied with the magnitude of costs, were such an unlikely event to occur (Gigerenzer, 2006). This preoccupation, in turn, elicits anxiety over potentially devastating future events, such as terrorism (Pugh et al., 2003).

Terrorism is an ever-present reminder of potential death, triggering mortality salience (Landau et al., 2004; Pyszczynski et al., 2003) and a sense of dread (Slovic, 2004). Correspondent inference theory suggests that people fixate on the pain inflicted by terrorism and infer that the perpetrators have excessive aims, which forebodes unrelenting violence (Abrahms, 2006, 2013). A defining feature of terrorism is that it capitalizes on secrecy and surprise: People do not know when and where the next attack will strike, nor whom the assailants will be. The surprise element—that terrorism can strike anywhere at any time—robs people of a sense of control, further compounding fears (Hoffman & Shelby, 2017). Uncertainty exaggerates perceived risks in the public’s mind. Perhaps more insidiously, fears are resistant to rational judgment and updating, impervious to information provided on the actual risks of terrorism (Friedman, 2011). Insofar as busting myths does not assuage fears (Kearns et al., 2019a), fears become pervasive and persistent, augmenting the coercive utility of terrorism.

Public Attitudes and Policy Preferences

To recap, the coercive effectiveness of terrorism rides on mass fears (Braithwaite, 2013; Chenoweth, 2010; Gould & Klor, 2010; Pape, 2003, 2006). Preferences have important consequences for the effectiveness of counterterrorism programs, especially if opinion formation is a bottom-up process rather than a top-down one whereby leaders manufacture and manipulate public fears (Mueller & Stewart, 2015). Overblown fears can result in suboptimal policy choices, leading leaders to overreact (Gartner & Langlois, 2016) or play up the importance of terrorist events (Friedman, 2011). Even more malignantly, fears blown out of proportion empower authoritarian leaders, giving them latitude to enact draconian policies they otherwise could not have pushed forward (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009). Outsize and endemic fears can animate and institutionalize exaggerated policy responses (Mueller & Stewart, 2015). This is bolstered by the remarkable persistence of fears even in the face of accurate information provision (Mueller, 2006). These inflated fears may propel and justify hypervigilance, costly military campaigns, and expensive counterterrorism efforts that demand vast resources.

If public fears make or break it for the utility of terrorism, the onus falls on state leaders to mitigate fears and contain their spread. This may seem like a daunting task given that people routinely overestimate the risk of terrorism (Mueller, 2005, 2006). Insights about how these fears are mitigated and managed are integral to lowering the pressure that leaders encounter when crafting policy responses. How do we mitigate and manage fears if these fears defy rational updating? Researchers who investigate this precise question offer some sanguine news. The first piece of buoyant news comes from scholars of psychology, who study trauma among victims directly exposed to terrorism. Remarkably, a survey of New York City residents directly exposed to the 9/11 events reported no trauma symptoms six months after the attacks (Bonanno et al., 2006). This type of resilience, defined as the absence of trauma, contrasts with gloomy prognostications about perpetually inflated threat perceptions. That is, although people may overestimate the risks of being victims of terrorist events, people are resilient in the face of terrorism, even when they have direct experience with highly lethal terrorist events.

Others show that policymakers have tools at their disposal to dispel fears and redress distorted risk perceptions. Combining laboratory and MTurk experiments, Hoffman and Shelby (2017) demonstrated that beliefs that the counterterrorism response is effective can ameliorate fears by boosting confidence in the government’s ability to restore order and establish safety. Silverman et al. (2021) shifted the focus from counterterrorism to information provision. Through a series of experiments, the authors show that factual information that contextualizes violence mollifies public fears and keeps them at bay for weeks after a hypothetical attack. Equally hearteningly, the authors find that the palliative effects on fears are not attributable solely to partisan or institutional cues, but rather depend on the quality and accuracy of information. In sum, these studies provide hope that the terrorizing effects of violence may be contained through effective counterterrorism strategies (Hoffman & Shelby, 2017) and accurate reporting (Silverman et al., 2021). They also provide valuable tools for policymakers in managing the public response to terrorism.

To recount, the Abrahms and Pape debate highlights that psychological responses play an important role in the creation and spread of fear in response terrorism, with important implications for policy responses. The scholarship is germane to understanding how psychological reactions connect to policy change.

Determinants of Public Perceptions of International Terrorism

Recognizing the pivotal role that public perceptions play in underwriting the effectiveness of terrorism and in shaping counterterrorism policies, scholars have trained their analytical lens on individual attitudes. This interest has birthed a vast literature, the breadth of which renders its organization a herculean task. One way to organize the discussion is in terms of its historical trajectory. Specifically, the global war on terror spurred a series of studies interested in understanding the determinants of public perceptions of terrorism. The 2000s ushered in scholarship that examined psychological repercussions resulting from 9/11 as well as other high-magnitude and fatal terrorist events across the Atlantic. Other scholars expanded the discussion beyond past attacks and sought to probe how individuals respond to hypothetical terrorist events—or political violence in general. The common thread to this body of work is that it treats public opinion as an outcome (dependent) variable and political violence as the main regressor or treatment.

Global War on Terror and Public Attitudes

The immediate post-9/11 environment and the ensuing war on terror engendered interest in public responses to terrorism across a range of disciplines, most prominently psychology, sociology, and political science. Studies published in the decade following 9/11 are invested in understanding the cognitive and emotional processing of terrorist events. Survey studies probe individuals’ direct and indirect exposure to terrorism, premised on the notion that personal (direct) and vicarious (indirect) exposure to violence can lead to psychological distress, which in turn manifests as PTSD (Silver et al., 2002; Galea et al., 2002; Hobfoll et al., 2008).

Proximity is linked to greater psychological distress because individuals close to attack sites are more likely to be exposed to terrorism. Along these lines, Schlenger et al. (2002) found that residents of New York City exhibited symptoms of PTSD. Worryingly, trauma can persist in populations long after the fatal events. Through a longitudinal study, Silver et al. (2002) demonstrated the lasting psychological repercussions of 9/11. Notably, however, the same study found that PTSD did not manifest in the U.S. population at large, indicating that trauma may diminish with distance to attack localities. Other scholars reiterate the importance of proximity in the wake of other highly salient terrorist events, such as the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London attacks (Allouche & Lind, 2010). Other scholars have expanded beyond the U.S. context and shown that PTSD symptoms manifest in states who have endured massive terrorist events or an ongoing campaign of violence. They show the persistence and prevalence of PTSD in residents of Spain (Miguel-Tobal et al., 2006) and Israel (Bleich et al., 2003; Shalev & Freedman, 2005).

Effects of Distance

An intuitive conclusion is that the potency of fear declines with distance, such that those in the immediate vicinity of attacks experience fear most viscerally. This insight falls short of revealing the underlying mechanism that links distance to fear. A plausible mechanism is that distance blunts fear because it entails less direct exposure to the event. In the face of atrocities, there are gradations of exposure, such that one’s experience with terrorism may decline with distance. Whereas residents at the specific venue of attack are more likely to have been victimized or directly witnessed violence, other citizens likely experience the violence indirectly (Galea et al., 2002). An ancillary mechanism is that proximity heightens emotional arousal and personal sense of vulnerability (Silver et al., 2002). Individuals close to attack sites harbor a sense of imminent danger and consequently experience elevated stress (Canetti-Nisim et al., 2016; Giner-Sorolla & Maitner, 2013). They may also overestimate the risks of being victimized in a terrorist event, even if they have not directly experienced the attacks. Although both direct and indirect exposure to terrorism pose psychological effects, the effects are more acute given proximity and decline with distance to attack sites (Davis & Macdonald, 2004; Fischhoff et al., 2003). From the vantage point of terrorism as a form of political communication (Kydd & Walter, 2006; Matusitz, 2012; Pape, 2003), distance blunts the punishing message. The palliative effects of geographic distance between sender and recipient entail that threat perceptions attenuate with distance (Nussio et al., 2019).

Other scholars have expanded beyond linear distance within the same state to compare responses to domestic and transnational events. Garcia and Geva (2016) flipped the domestic versus transnational distinction on its head by claiming that transnational events inspire greater fear. The authors argue that they do because the threat is external and less predictable; by contrast, domestic terrorism is more likely to be associated with hate crimes where the targets are members of minority out-groups. Avdan and Webb (2018) designed an experiment to study threat perception given transnational attacks. The study is influential in showing that contiguity amplifies public reactions. The authors attribute the effects of shared borders to distance as well as a shared sense of community with neighbor states, such that attacks in a contiguous state more readily inspire fear than transnational events across the pond. Nussio et al. (2019) provide a different perspective in spatial conditionality, averring that distance only tells a partial story to how people respond to terrorism. They note that fear is contagious, especially given a rampant sense of imminent danger and fear among the public. Böhmelt et al. (2020) expand this logic, elucidating that the salience of security concerns in a state respond to terrorist events in neighbor states. Fears can spill over borders, with significant effects on public opinion on other issues. The authors show that elevated concerns over terrorism strengthen the migration–terrorism connection in countries where attacks in neighbor states generate greater hostility to migrants.

Cognitive Models

In cognitive models, threat perceptions—along with a sense of control and uncertainty—predict worries about terrorism (Lee et al., 2010). Intuitively, individuals who express greater perceived threats and are more uncertain and more worried about terrorism (Klar et al., 2002). In the decade following 9/11, scholars identified a range of demographic characteristics that modulate threat perceptions. Subsequent work in the decade following the attacks casts attention to the characteristics of terrorist events as drivers of threat perceptions.

The first segment of literature has lent some interesting insights about how individual traits affect perceived threat. Threat perceptions are generally higher among women (Fischhoff et al., 2003, 2005; Huddy et al., 2005), the less-educated (Friedland & Merrari, 1985; Huddy et al., 2005), and older people, as well as higher among Whites than among Blacks or Latinos (Shambaugh et al., 2009). Individuals who identify as conservative and Republican exhibit greater threat perceptions (Shambaugh et al., 2009. Psychological distress, in particular trauma modulates the effects of demographic attributes, an important finding common to studies within and outside the United States (Lemyre et al., 2006; Shambaugh et al., 2009).

Research published since the mid-2010s examines the effects of perpetrator and terrorist event characteristics on psychological responses, thus shifting focus away from demographic characteristics of individuals. Along these lines, Avdan and Webb (2019) theorized that psychological responses are a function of cultural and geographic distance between victims and respondents. The intuition motivating this argument is that individuals are likely to experience more pronounced fears when violence harms victims perceived to be culturally similar. Avdan and Webb’s experimental findings spotlight the salience of racial and religious similarity as cultural markers that embody feelings of affinity and empathy with the victims of violence. The underlying mechanisms ride on the empathy gap and affinity. People extend empathy more liberally to culturally similar individuals. Similarity implies familiarity, which amplifies fears more acutely. Familiarity with the victims compels people to imagine that they could be the next victims, because the victims look and live like them.

Other work draws attention to attack modalities’ effects on psychological responses. An important distinction is that between organized and lone-wolf attacks. Scholars maintain that the former are innately more threatening, as individuals believe that an attack staged by a terrorist organization is more likely to spell future violence than a lone-wolf attack, in part because the latter is assumed to be a one-off incident rather than part of a larger terrorist campaign (Phillips, 2015; Spaaij, 2010). More broadly, this research shows that the public audience infers capabilities, which in turn shapes expectations about future violence, from attack modalities. Expanding on this logic, Avdan and Webb (2018) showed that coordinated events more acutely heighten threat perceptions than isolated events. Coordinated events signal capabilities—savvy and sophistication, specifically, of militant groups.

Sociopolitical Effects of Public Perceptions of Terrorism

Whereas the 2000s saw a burgeoning program that views individual attitudes as the outcome variable, a second generation of scholarship shifts the analytical lens and studies the effects of attitudes on a host of political outcomes (Berrebi & Klor, 2008; Getmansky & Zeitzoff, 2014; Hirsch-Hoefler et al., 2016; Mondak & Hurwitz, 2012). That is, instead of viewing public opinion as an outcome variable, this literature treats it as the primary independent variable. Foremost among topics of interest for political scientists is how perceptions of terrorism affect support for domestic and international anti-terrorism ventures (Huddy et al., 2005; Kam & Franzese, 2007) and electoral and political outcomes (Brouard et al., 2018 Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009, 2013; Peffley et al., 2015). A closely related strain of work casts attention to the effects of attitudes on support for related policy dimensions, such as human rights and civil liberties (Conrad et al., 2016; Piazza, 2015) and migration policies (Erisen et al., 2020).

Although there is some evidence that terrorism precipitates a “rally ’round the flag” effect (Chowanietz, 2011; Kuehnhanss et al., 2020) by enhancing social cohesion and trust (Geys & Qari, 2017), these effects tend to be short-lived, and the long-term social-psychological effects are damaging (Huddy et al., 2002, 2003). The 9/11 attacks created a rally ’round the flag effect by boosting approval ratings for the Bush administration (Huddy et al., 2003; Landau et al., 2004). At the same time, however, the war on terror became interlinked with ethnocentrism and rising xenophobia, especially aimed at those perceived to be of Arab and Muslim descent (Kam & Franzese, 2007). The terrorist attacks of 9/11 brought to the surface deeply rooted ethnocentric beliefs, highlighting the effects of emotive responses in accentuating previously hidden beliefs as well as in reordering policy priorities. As an exogenous shock, a fatal and significant terrorist event evokes mortality salience (Landau et al., 2004; Pyszczynski et al., 2003), provoking feelings that the individual is in imminent danger or is likely the next casualty of violence (Finseraas & Listhaug, 2013; Hirsch-Hoefler et al., 2016). Moreover, even though massive terrorist events engender a rally around the incumbent, the threat of terrorism generates support for hawkish, iron-fisted leaders (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009). Combined, the sociopolitical consequences of terrorism resonate with findings in psychology that threats activate in-group solidarity (Turner et al., 1984) and, perhaps more maliciously, “othering” mechanisms (Feldman & Stenner, 1997).

Terrorism chips away at the norms of democracy and liberalism (Davis, 2007), undermining social trust and heightening feelings of social isolation and dislocation (Geys & Qari, 2017). By cultivating uncertainty and feelings of insecurity, it elevates support for authoritarianism (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009), in line with the effects of negative events (Feldman & Stenner, 1997). These psychosocial ramifications bleed into harsher views on how terrorism suspects should be treated and amplify demands for uncompromising antiterrorism responses (Conrad et al., 2016; Spino & Cummins, 2014). A fearful and uncertain public is more likely to throw its support behind heavy-fisted leaders and more likely to see these leaders as redeemers (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009). It is also more tolerant of draconian leaders’ policy agendas.

Attitudes on Counterterrorism

Researchers paint a mixed picture about the detrimental effects of threat perceptions on the policy environment and the society writ large. First, people express differing emotive responses to terrorism, with differentiable policy preferences. An important distinction is between fear and anxiety, as these emotions align with differing—and sometimes contrasting—policy preferences among individuals. Psychologists define fear as a response to an observable, specific, danger, and anxiety as a diffuse, objectless, and future-oriented response (Barlow, 2002; Horwitz, 2013). Whereas anxiety engenders risk aversion and conservationist behaviors, fear imposes the opposite effects by galvanizing individuals into retaliatory action (Herrmann et al., 1999; Lerner & Keltner, 2000). Huddy et al. (2005) highlight the distinction between anxiety and threat responses as two key emotions felt among American respondents in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. They show that individuals who reported anxiety were more likely to prefer an isolationist foreign policy and to be reticent about military adventurism. By contrast, individuals reporting heightened threat perceptions were more likely to champion President Bush’s domestic and international antiterrorism measures. Drawing on an appraisal-tendency framework, Lerner and Keltner (2000, 2001) demarcated between fear and anger, mapping these emotions to pessimism and optimism, respectively, in risk assessments. Building on this distinction, Lerner et al. (2003) found opposite effects of anger and fear on risk judgments and policy preferences. Fearful individuals report higher risk estimates and prefer precautionary measures, and angry individuals report lower risk anticipation and hence are less prudent in policy preferences. In summary, terrorism provokes variegated emotive responses that align with differing—and in some cases discrepant—policy demands.

A second insightful distinction is that between perceived threats to the self and threats to the broader society. The intuition behind this distinction is that terrorism is a social problem more than it is a personal concern (Davis & Silver, 2004; Huddy et al., 2002, 2005). Building on this insight, Joslyn and Haider-Markel (2007) claimed that although individual threat perceptions cohere with a personal sense of responsibility in minimizing risk, socio-tropic threat perceptions place the burden of responsibility on the government. Put differently, the demand for policy change is a function of whether people regard terrorism as more of a threat to the community than a personal threat.

Third, the connection between psychological reactions to terrorism and policy preferences may rest on perceptions of policy success. In that vein, Garcia and Geva (2016) presented evidence from an experiment that showed the conditional nature of public preferences. The results show that perceptions of attack severity and a heightened sense of risk of a future attack track with support for a hard-line policy response. This is consistent with the notion that people trade liberties for security. At the same time, however, such support is contingent on the perception of counterterrorism effectiveness, whereby people lend support for invasive policies insofar as they perceive these policies to be effective in blunting terrorism (Garcia & Geva, 2016).

Social identity theory (SIT) is well-suited to understanding how threat perceptions link to policy demands insofar as insecurity triggers desires for retribution and retaliation, whereas uncertainty saps tolerance (Kinder & Sears, 1981; Peffley et al., 2015). Equally disquietingly, SIT shows how demands for policy stringency, where people demand restrictions on the civil liberties of out-groups can further fray support for minority rights (Andrews & Seguin, 2015). By fomenting uncertainty and sowing fear, terrorism creates the perfect storm for out-group members to be scapegoated in the public eye, paving the way for targeted, heavy-handed policy initiatives.

Scholars have leaned on SIT to show how threat perceptions weaken tolerance toward others (Peffley et al., 2015) and generate support for harsher treatment of perpetrators belonging to out-groups. Echoing the wisdom of Peffley et al. (2015), Piazza held that elevated threat perceptions dampen popular tolerance for racial, ethnic, and religious others. Along these lines, he presented an experimental study showing that support for extraordinary detention practices such as indefinite detention and denial of access to legal counsel and civilian criminal courts is stronger if terror suspects are identified as Muslims. Piazza’s findings resonate with the larger literature on American views about violence, whereby Americans are more likely to espouse torture if detainees are Muslim and if the violence is perceived to be terrorism (Conrad et al., 2016). Consistent with SIT as well, people have fewer qualms about inflicting pain and suffering on members of the out-group (Tarrant et al., 2012). All told, this literature stresses the limits of the public as a bulwark against policy abuses (Conrad & Moore, 2010). Elevated threat perceptions weaken these checks, particularly where assailants are regarded as members of an out-group.

The weakening of public constraints on policy has particularly worrying and pernicious consequences for out-groups insofar as the American public is notoriously ambivalent on the issue of torture (Gronke et al., 2010, 2014). Across both sides of the Atlantic, heightened threat perceptions in the wake of terrorist events weaken opposition to the use of torture as a counterterrorism policy (Gronke et al., 2010; Hendrix & Wong, 2013; Miller, 2011). Unlike human rights abuses, which affect the society at large, harsh counterterrorism practices are targeted at a small subset of the population comprised of marginalized individuals, criminal and terrorism suspects (Rejali, 2007). If detainees disproportionately tend to be from culturally dissimilar individuals, then the onus falls heavily on members of the perceived out-group. Out-group animosity and othering, pivotal to SIT, underlie preferences toward counterterrorism (Huff & Kertzer, 2018).

Other scholars consider how individual dispositions and demographic attributes affect support for punitive measures as part of a counterterrorism response. On this score, Dolliver and Kearns (2022) showed that individual views—particularly Islamophobia—as well as political ideology affect attitudes. The authors find that while Islamophobia and conservative leanings render individuals disinclined to label an attack as terroristic if the perpetrator is not Muslim, those who identify as White are more likely to label attacks carried out by non-Whites as terrorism. Violence at the hands of an out-group member is more apt to be labeled terrorism because the perpetrator, rather than their environment, receives the brunt of the blame.

Sociopolitical Consequences of Terrorism

Another segment of the scholarship seeks to explore how terrorism reshapes political attitudes more broadly, moving beyond the narrow focus on counterterrorism policy preferences. The nascent consensus is that terrorism sways policy preferences by increasing support for right-wing and authoritarian policies and leaders (Bonanno & Jost, 2006; Hetherington & Suhay, 2011; Merolla & Zachmeister, 2009; Nail et al., 2009; Van de Vyver et al., 2016; Vasilopoulos et al., 2017). Furthermore, evidence from public attitudes following the Paris (2015) and Nice (2016) attacks in France suggests that individuals’ ideological leanings shift to the right, a finding that is most pronounced on issues related to security (Brouard et al., 2018). Received wisdom from this literature holds that terrorism inculcates negative emotions—insecurity, anger, fear, a sense of loss of control, uncertainty—and that these emotions undergird support for far-right politics. Canny authoritarian leaders can ride the wave of populism and capitalize on these negative emotions through fear-mongering. They stoke more public anxiety about deteriorating economic and/or security conditions, as well as the changing social order, and drive up support for the right (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009, 2013). Moreover, the negative emotions in response to terrorism shape individuals foreign policy preferences (Gadarian, 2010; Huddy et al., 2005). Faced with the threat of terrorism, individuals express greater support for retaliatory policies (Huddy et al., 2002), overseas engagement (Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009), and hawkish foreign policy measures (Gadarian, 2010).

Elites do not have the final say on how the threat of terrorism is perceived. The information environment shapes how individuals respond to and process violence. Accurate reporting can ameliorate fears (Silverman et al., 2021). Equally importantly, the media can influence the psychological responses to terrorism, not only by ensuring transparency and accuracy in reporting but also by shaping discourse and debate. Through sensationalism, the use of evocative imagery, and emphasis on threatening information, the media environment can accentuate negative emotions and in turn affect preferences for foreign policy (Gadarian, 2010). In other words, the media has a responsibility to bear, beyond factual delivery, as how it reports terrorist events matters at least as much as the information provided in shaping public views. Emotionally laden reporting produces hawkish foreign policy preferences, such as greater militarism, support for foreign involvement, and greater approval of tough counterterrorism measures. Gadarian’s findings illustrate the potency of evocative imagery: scary and sensationalist visuals render the public more persuadable and receptive to hawkish messaging, potentially magnifying the effects of elite cues with authoritarian leanings.

Other work delves deeper into the terrorism-authoritarianism or populism linkage by unpacking the discrepant effects of emotions. Vasilopoulos et al. (2019) surmise that authoritarianism does not benefit from all types of negative emotions; in effect, emotions aren’t created equal in how they link to policy preferences. Another study further refines the terrorism-authoritarianism connection by showing that contrary to conventional expectations, hostility toward migrants declined in response to the Anders Breivik terrorist events in Oslo, Norway, in 2011 (Solheim, 2020). The author attributes this finding to increased cohesion in the Norwegian populace on the heels of the Oslo attack, as well as individuals’ desires to distance themselves from the right-wing and anti-immigrant ideology of Breivik. Even though solely focused on a particular case of domestic terrorism in Norway, these results may paint a more optimistic picture by implying that the disgust and moral opprobrium generated by right-wing attacks can move public opinion in seemingly unexpected ways, lowering distrust and intolerance of minorities and migrants, and creating a collective impetus to dissociate from extremist ideologies (Jakobsson & Blom, 2014).

A related segment of the literature has expanded the scope of the discussion about emotions beyond antiterrorism policies to different dimensions of policy. Notably, scholars have studied emotional variation in the context of the terrorism–migration nexus. Studying public attitudes in France following the 2015 Paris attacks, Vasilopoulos et al. (2019) reported that fear and anger generate opposite voting trends, with anger linked to the propensity to vote for the French far-right party, the Front National, whereas fear predicts voting against the Front National.

Several common threads run through this literature. First, terrorist violence triggers both emotions, but individuals vary in how acutely each of these emotions are felt. Second, these emotions are distinguishable in their policy consequences, not just in driving support for antiterrorism policies but also in affecting political preferences and voting behavior. Third, these emotions have differing effects on subsets of the populace. For example, in Vasilopoulos’s study, anger more potently boosts support for the Front National among far-right and authoritarian voters, indicating that preexisting political dispositions condition the impact of emotional responses to terrorism. Erisen et al. (2020) similarly distinguished between these two emotions; using surveys conducted in Germany and Netherlands, to show that fear and anger produce divergent policy preferences. Anger is associated with opposition to policy cooperation, whereas fear about immigration is associated with support for EU-level cooperation on counterterrorism strategy.

Emerging Research Avenues

Emerging research proceeds along two fertile avenues. The first one moves the focus past studies of psychological responses to massive and lethal singular events. A second, distinct avenue shifts focus from public perceptions of terrorism to how audiences label political violence, and interrogate how attributes of violence engender convictions that acts should be categorized as terrorism.

Chronic Terrorism

The bulk of survey research has focused on the United States in order to examine the public’s response to 9/11, and across the pond similar studies track the public’s response to the fatal events in Europe. These leave open the question of how publics process and perceive recurring terrorist violence. The intuitive expectation is that individuals living in societies afflicted with recurring violence—such as India, Israel, and Northern Ireland—will respond differently to violence than those living elsewhere without a constant threat of violence. Individuals in these societies cope with simmering threats of violence in their everyday lives. A survey of Israeli citizens in 2000–2001, for example, notes that 12% of respondents had personally been present at an attack (Kirschenbaum, 2005). This perspective distinguishes between isolated and recurring terrorism; the latter entails prolonged exposure to violence, with distinctive psychological reactions (Hoffman & Kaire, 2020).

There are two plausible perspectives on how people react to chronic terrorism. They may become sensitized, through which continued violence amplifies psychological responses (Overmier, 2002). Alternatively, they may become habituated such that continued exposure tempers their responses. Not surprisingly, there is evidence for both mechanisms. Somewhat lining up with sensitization, Klar et al.’s (2002) study of Israeli attitudes after the Al Aqsa Intifada found that attitudes demonstrated realism, particularly in terms of comparable vulnerability to risk. The respondents in the study did not perceive themselves as uniquely immune from victimization, suggesting that continued exposure to terrorism did not dampen their reactions. Additionally, while perceived vulnerability prompted people to take precautionary measures, respondents held modest perceptions of control over risk and doubted whether these measures inoculated them from being harmed. Again in favor of sensitization, media coverage may magnify threat perceptions by reminding people of trauma, and animate rumination, leaving people with a sense that they have the means to redress the sense of insecurity they feel (Holman et al., 2014). On the flip side, chronic violence may inure individuals to violence. Indeed, studies of Israeli citizens find that terrorism does not negatively affect lifestyles (Gal, 2014; Romanov et al., 2012), suggesting that people become desensitized over time and/or adapt to living under the threat of recurring violence. Likewise, people become habituated to continual media coverage of terrorism because they learn to distinguish between real and false threats, and the initial sense of alarm and dread in response to media consumption subsides over time (Hoffman & Kaire, 2020).

Others have questioned whether populations subject to recurring violence exhibit more profound and lasting psychological distress than those exposed to a singular violent incident. While researchers identified PTSD symptoms among victims of 9/11 (Galea et al., 2002), others offered more sanguine news. Populations tend to recover from attacks fairly quickly and demonstrate resilience, defined as healthy functioning despite exposure to terrorism; and in rarer cases, resistance, defined as the absence of any trauma symptoms (Bonanno, 2004; Bonanno et al., 2006). The worry shared among scholars is that this optimistic news would not apply in the case of chronic terrorism. These worries are corroborated by a set of related studies (Hobfoll et al., 2006, 2008, 2011). Hobfoll et al.’s (2006) study of the Israeli population reported no evidence of resistance or resilience. These results indicated that chronic mass casualties can wear on the population’s psyche and morale. In a subsequent study, Hobfoll et al. (2011) theorized that material and psychosocial resources can, to some extent, shield individuals from the malignant effects of chronic violence. In fact, the authors found differences in levels of trauma reported across their studies, which they attributed to the greater levels of chronic and repeated trauma and poor resources among Palestinians compared to Israeli respondents. By contrast, small subsets of respondents in the 2006 study demonstrated resilience and resistance, which the authors attributed to the greater resources and lower exposure to terrorism among the Israeli population.

To recap, although chronic terrorism leads to trauma, its effects are not uniform across populations. Another perspective comes from research showing that people can become habituated to exposure to terrorism over time. Through an experiment, Hoffman and Kaire (2020) demonstrated this habituation dynamic: Initial consumption of news about terrorism elicits a host of negative psychological and emotional responses, but these effects wane with prolonged exposure, suggesting that people become acclimated over time. These findings contrast sharply with the research immediately following the 9/11 attacks, which found that prolonged exposure to the coverage of the tragedy heightened PTSD symptoms (Schuster et al., 2001; Silver et al., 2002). Taken together, the heartening conclusion is that the psychological toll on individuals weakens given repeated direct or indirect exposure to violence.

Separate from the debate on resistance and resilience among populations afflicted with chronic violence, others contend that ongoing terrorism merits study in its own right because it exacts a lasting psycho-social toll on societies (Canetti-Nisim et al., 2009; Geys & Qari, 2017; Peffley et al., 2015). On the one hand, singular lethal events such as 9/11 carry significant repercussions, shifting attitudes to the right, allowing civil liberties to be sacrificed for the sake of security, and generating support for hard-line leaders (Davis & Silver, 2003, 2004; Hetherington & Suhay, 2011; Merolla & Zechmeister, 2009). Exclusionist attitudes spike in the immediate aftermath of significant terrorist events (Huddy et al., 2002, 2004; Skitka et al., 2004). On the other hand, however, the social effects of isolated terrorist events may be limited and short-lived, whereas repeated violence has downstream deleterious effects on the society writ large. Moreover, persistent terrorism cuts deeper into societal norms as it imperils the very foundational principles on which democratic liberalism rests. Hobfoll et al. (2006) showed worrying evidence from a survey of noncombatants in Israel that exposure to terrorism produces greater intolerance toward minorities. Similarly, Canetti-Nisim et al. (2009) presented experimental findings corroborating the disquieting effects of chronic violence, tracing the roots of political extremism to heightened levels of psychological distress. They found that among a representative sample of Israeli Jewish respondents, psychological distress predicts an increased sense of threat from Palestinians, which in turn predicts exclusionist attitudes toward Palestinians.

Psychological distress exacerbates threat perceptions, animating people to use exclusion of minorities as a threat buffer. Notably, exposure, in and of itself, is not the culprit in generating political intolerance; rather, it is mediated by psychological distress. In a similar vein, Peffley et al. (2015) found that chronic terrorism saps political tolerance in afflicted societies. Tracing public attitudes toward minorities over a 30-year period in Israel—a turbulent period marred by both Intifadas—they found that persistent and recurring terrorism eroded support for the civil liberties and political freedoms granted to minorities. In summary, chronic terrorism reshapes the political milieu by empowering right-wing parties, strengthening authoritarianism, and providing room for hard-line policies.

Labeling Political Violence

Another important emerging research pathway studies how the media and public label violent events. That is, rather than examining psychological responses to terrorism, this scholarship probes whether a specific incident of violence is labeled by the public and the media as an act of terrorism, as opposed to, for example, a mass shooting. Leveraging social identity theory (SIT), through experimental and survey designs, scholars show that violence carried out by culturally dissimilar individuals is more likely to be perceived as terrorism (D’Orazio & Salehyan, 2018; Huff & Kertzer, 2018). More specifically, events carried out by assailants purported to be of Arab or Muslim descent or affiliation are labeled as terrorism more frequently than attacks perpetrated by Whites or people of Caucasian descent. Although perpetrators’ attributes are important parts of the story, so are other attributes of events, such as the weapons deployed (Huff & Kertzer, 2018). In the public’s eye, bombs are associated more directly with terrorism than other weapons of assault. This also aligns with earlier findings that organized violence is more readily associated with terrorism (Spaaij, 2010), entailing that violence at the hands of groups rather than individuals resonates with preconceived notions of what comprises terrorism.


The manuscript has examined the determinants and effects of public opinion on terrorism by situating the discussion against the backdrop of the global war on terror. Interest in terrorism—particularly international terrorism—emerged directly in response to the 9/11 attacks, even though modern terrorism predates September 11. The review has surveyed scholarship on attitudes toward high-magnitude lethal terrorist events such as 9/11 and the Madrid and London attacks, as well as the literature covering European public responses to attacks in Paris, Nice, and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.

Two prevailing themes that emerge from the overview concern emotional variation in individual responses to terrorism and the role that social identity theory plays in guiding attitudes toward terrorism. People process terrorist variation through variegated cognitive mechanisms, leading to differentiable emotional responses. These emotions, in turn, are associated with distinct policy preferences. Whereas threat perceptions call for prudence, for example, anger musters support for more assertive and internationally engaged counterterrorism. Social identity theory figures into perceptions and designation of terrorism and also affects support for draconian counterterrorism measures. Within this literature, perpetrator characteristics, or more specifically, the social distance between perpetrators and the audience, drive psychological responses. A veritable finding of scholarship dating to the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks is that physical proximity augurs more potent psychological responses because it increases the likelihood of exposure to violence. Subsequent scholarship, particularly from 2015 onward has refined the effects of distance, noting that transnational and domestic attacks are perceived differently, that cultural distance intersects with geographic distance, and that fears can spread across international borders. Additionally, the essay has surveyed scholarship on attitudes toward counterterrorism and, relatedly, on the sociopolitical consequences of terrorism. A central insight is that psychological reactions to terrorism function as the pivotal link between violence and policy change. Put differently, the coercive utility of terrorism rests on public attitudes.

This article has also alluded to the normative implications of public opinion, noting that how people process terrorism and the types of emotions they experience affect the ability of public opinion to restrain leaders in their policy responses. Much attention has also been devoted to linking public attitudes to broader shifts in the social and political landscape of countries exposed to terrorism. The literature that has surfaced since the mid-2010s informs readership on the transnational contagion of fear, work that is instrumental in depicting attitudes as a transnational phenomenon, showing that just as violence can spread, fears can also do so across borders.

Undoubtedly, scholarship has made considerable headway in understanding the causes and consequences of public attitudes toward terrorism. Nevertheless, unexplored avenues remain. Scholarship has mostly remained preoccupied with how perpetrators’ characteristics influence opinion, in part because of concerns that public opinion is bedeviled by implicit racial, ethnic, and religious biases. Although this research is unquestionably valuable in teasing out the policy implications of these biases, it leaves room for scholars to explore other event attributes that shape political opinion. Is civilian targeting by terrorist actors regarded as more threatening than military targeting? This question merits scrutiny, especially given that civilian targeting figures into definitions of terrorism and plays an important role in the coercive effectiveness debate. To date, scholarship has presumed that terrorism provokes a shift to the right and toward authoritarianism. It has failed to explore other factors that can modify this trend. The surveyed research in this article shows that domestic right-wing terrorism can provoke a backlash among the public against the ideology of the assailant. Do the ideologies of terrorist perpetrators matter for responses to terrorism? Scholars have made strides in understanding how terrorism shapes attitudes toward migrants, but the migration–terrorism nexus has to date been explored only in the Western context. This lacuna creates a welcome opportunity for scholars invested in studying public opinion toward terrorism outside of the Western context.

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