Analyzing Projected Behavioral and Emotional Responses to Terrorist Events

Principal Investigator: David J. Weiss

Other Researchers: Richard John, Heather Rosoff


Generating fear within the civilian population is an expressed motive underlying most terrorist acts. Fear has both psychological and economic consequences. To better understand these consequences, our studies ask people to imagine how they would feel if an attack or series of attacks occurred, as well as how their plans would be affected. We elicit numerical ratings of the strength of the feelings generated by scenarios in which terrorists use MANPADS to shoot down passenger airplanes at a nearby international airport. We also ask respondents how future travel plans would be affected.   We attempt to influence the feelings and projected actions by factorially manipulating governmental responses and public reaction to the attacks within the scenarios. Governmental agencies inevitably address terrorist actions, and it is of practical interest to determine whether people feel or behave differently depending on what the government says or does. People also use social cues to guide their actions, so perceptions of how other folks are handling the threat may influence one’s response as well. Of particular concern is the way in which these factors might combine. This question is addressed using functional measurement methodology, which can determine whether the combination rule is additive or multiplicative. Additive combination, the simplest hypothesis, means the factors operate independently, which has the practical implication that the factors can be applied straightforwardly. Multiplicative combination, on the other hand, is a kind of interaction. Interaction is a more complex pattern that means one must check on possible amplification or cancellation effects when factors operate in concert.   We have used MANPADs attacks as the core of our two major empirical studies. A MANPADS is a shoulder-fired missile capable of downing a commercial plane. Its portability would make it an attractive weapon for a small group. Both of these studies were carried out in two locations. In the first study, conducted in California and Spain, we described a plot to cripple the airline industry by distributing MANPADS to terrorist cells around the country. Neither fear nor projected actions were systematically affected by the manipulations we built into the scenarios. The plot elicited only moderate fear, and most of the scheduled flights were going to be taken as planned.   In our second study, conducted in California and Israel, we attempted to escalate the fear by including reports that airplanes had actually been attacked by MANPADS. Furthermore, the scenarios contained additional attacks continuing over a three-week period. As the attacks unfolded, we asked the respondent to report feelings and projected actions after each successive wave. This set of manipulations was more powerful, in that high degrees of fear were reported and flights were canceled. Again, however, neither government action nor public reaction had much impact.   The international collaborations were with investigators from countries that have had lengthy experience with local terrorism. Surprisingly, the results from both studies were virtually identical across their two respective countries. In both studies, women expressed more fear than men.   Our methodological contributions are of two kinds. We developed a new statistical procedure for analyzing nominal responses, in this case projected actions, generated by a factorial design. With this tool, we can conduct parallel analyses of numerical data and nominal data. We are also promoting the use of our factorial scenario method to predict future actions. Policy makers presently rely upon intuition, small focus groups, or expert consultants to predict how the public will behave in new situations. We propose a more structured and more democratic approach to prediction.