Public Opinion

People’s attitudes, beliefs, and decisions are heavily influenced by the emotions they are experiencing. In particular, anger, fear, and sadness lead people to perceive different amounts of risk of terrorism, make them more or less likely to support military action, and can cause them to place causal blame for terrorist events.  In one study, researchers found that people reminded of their own mortality were more likely to be supportive of anti-terrorism policies and, further, were more likely to favor voting for one candidate over another based on those policies than those who were not primed.




“Evaluating Welfare Improvements From Changes in Homeland Security Policies”
Carol Mansfield, Eric Finkelstein, Dallas Wood, Brent Rowe
Published March 2013

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government pursued a variety of new and often controversial counterterrorism policies. These policies imposed billions of dollars of monetary costs on U.S. taxpayers. They also imposed additional nonmonetary costs on those individuals who felt that their or others’ civil liberties were restricted as a result of expanded government powers. Given the controversial nature of counterterrorism policy, the design and evaluation of effective policies would benefit from an improved understanding of the public’s willingness to trade the monetary and nonmonetary costs of specific policies for increased security. This project attempts to fill this gap by using a stated-preference survey to examine the tradeoffs U.S. citizens state they would be willing to make between the monetary and nonmonetary costs of counterterrorism policies and specific reductions in the threat of terrorism.

Link to Final Report


“The Impact of Emotion in the American Public’s Assessments of and Reactions to Terrorism”
Julie Singer, Ph.D.
Published 06/28/2010

A convergence of social psychological research suggests that emotions have a powerful effect on attitudes, beliefs, and decisions, being one of the main forces that guide people toward these assessments. Given the powerful influence of emotions in these essential processes, this type of research is critical to understanding the mechanism of this influence. This research brief will summarize recent research on the emotional reactions of the American public to terrorism as well as discuss the limitations and remaining questions that these studies have elicited. Further, this brief will suggest how other findings in the emotion literature can be tested in the realm of terrorism research. Research findings in this area will impact our understanding of how the American public reacts to terrorist activities and why certain counterterrorism measures are more readily accepted by the American public than others.

Link to Research Brief

Methods for Assessing the Social Welfare Implications of U.S. Counterterrorism Policies”
Eric Finkelstein, Ph.D.
Published 12/07/2010

Policy makers in the Department of Homeland Security seek to formulate policies that reduce risks from domestic emergencies (such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks) and result in a net-benefit to U.S. citizens. In the case of counterterrorism, this means creating policies that generate enough benefits from reducing the threat of terrorism to offset the costs that these policies may impose. Costs might include higher taxes, reduced civil liberties, and increased inconvenience or other monetary and non-monetary sacrifices. Americans may oppose some policies if they believe the costs outweigh the benefits of increased security. Under these circumstances, even effective policies could reduce social welfare of the population. The goal of this research brief is to discuss previous methods that have been used to measure how U.S. citizens perceive the costs and benefits of counterterrorism policies and to suggest directions for future research.

“Media Attention to Terrorist Attacks: Causes and Consequences”
James Igoe Walsh, Ph.D.
Published 12/07/2010

Media attention is an important vehicle by which terrorists communicate with their audiences, and thus a central goal of many terrorist groups is to influence the scale and tone of media attention to their attacks (Hoffman, 2006; Jenkins, 1975; Nacos, 2002). However, terrorist attacks vary widely in the amount of media attention they receive. Most terrorist attacks receive no attention from major media outlets. Others, such as those in New York and Washington, DC, in 2001, London in 2005, and Mumbai in 2008, received heavy coverage (Kern, Just, & Norris, 2003, p. 40). This research brief summarizes the current understanding of factors influencing the decisions of media outlets to devote attention to terrorist attack and discusses how such coverage influences potential sympathizers and supporters.

Link to Research Brief


“Innovative Survey Methodologies for the Study of Attitudes Toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism Strategies: An Exploration of Past Surveys”
Julie Singer, Ph.D

Although some researchers have focused their attention on public responses to terrorism and governmental counterterrorism policies for many years, the field exploded with interest after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This led to a deluge of surveys conducted at the national, state, and city levels. This review summarizes the foci, approach, and findings of a sample of these past surveys.

Link to Literature Review

“Innovative Survey Methodologies for the Study of Attitudes Toward Terrorism and Counterterrorism Strategies”
Brad Bishop, Alexandra Cooper, D. Sunshine Hillygus

A study of public attitudes toward terrorism and counterterrorism strategies poses an array of challenges, ranging from selecting the appropriate target populations to developing instruments that provide meaningful measures of relevant attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Surveys are a powerful and timely methodology for studying the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the American public, particularly for capturing changes in public opinion both over time and in response to specific government policies and political events. Based on a review of the relevant survey methods literature, this report provides an overview of some of the most salient methodological and measurement considerations in developing a survey project to examine attitudes toward terrorism and counterterrorism strategies in the United States.

Link to Literature Review

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