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Terror Threat: Emotion and Action

October 1, 2013

By Angela T. Maitner (American University of Sharjah) and Roger Giner-Sorolla (University of Kent, Canterbury)

On August 2, 2013, the U.S. Department of State issued an unprecedented global alert, warning citizens of “the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.” Available information suggested that “al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond” (U.S. Department of State, 2013). President Obama later reinforced the alert in a statement to U.S. military forces: “Even as we decimated the al Qaeda leadership that attacked us on 9/11, al Qaeda affiliates and like-minded extremists still threaten our homeland” (Cohen, 2013).

The month after the alert (September of 2013) al Shabab launched a deadly siege in a Nairobi mall. The New York Times reported that the attack represented a “direct threat” to the U.S. (Kulish & Gettleman, 2013). Although political scientists took issue with this analysis (Walt, 2013), the headline alone highlights how any global incident can serve as a reminder of the treat of attack from ideological sources.

Research shows that the lingering threat of terrorism has specific and predictable effects on individuals’ feelings and actions. Changes in the National Terror Threat level, for example, have been linked to support for national leadership (Willer, 2004), while publicizing a specific, imminent threat increases concerns with homeland security (Willer & Adams, 2008).

Terrorism also elicits strong emotional reactions, including anger and fear (see Skitka, Bauman, & Mullen, 2004). Our own research, published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, investigated how perceptions of a threatening group’s power and the justness of their goals impact individuals’ emotional responses (Giner-Sorolla & Maitner, 2013). One study asked British students to read information from the British Home Secretary and MI5 about the growing threat of terrorism against British interests, then measured participants reactions to terrorists groups who varied in levels of malicious intent and access to resources. A second study investigated a nationally representative sample of American residents’ reactions to descriptions of threatening groups, whose intent and power once again varied. Across both studies, results showed that the more powerful a group was perceived, the more fear participants felt. Independently, the more unjust the groups’ actions were perceived, the more anger participants felt. In other words, whether participants felt anger, fear, or both depended on the way they perceived a threatening group’s power and morality.

Predicting emotional reactions to terrorist threat is important because emotions influence both personal action and support for national policy. Thus we also investigated how manipulations of threatening groups’ power and justness, and the anger and fear individuals felt in response to terrorist threat impacted their intentions. In these studies we investigated individuals’ desires to not only attack or avoid terrorist groups, but to engage in negotiation.

Governments have only recently begun negotiating with terrorist groups, essentially bringing these ideological, non-state actors into the political fold. Recently, for example, Western governments have courted meetings with Taliban leadership stationed in Doha (Latifi, 2013). Just this weekend, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution aimed at eliminating chemical weapons in Syria after the use of sarin nerve gas (presumably by the national government) left over 1000 people dead (Walsh and Labott, 2013). The resolution, a diplomatic solution, seems to have at least temporarily silenced President Obama’s wildly unpopular plan to respond more aggressively.

Our research showed that perceptions of justice influenced individuals’ desires to negotiate with a threatening group. When a threatening group was described as having no malicious intent toward one’s nation, then people were significantly more supportive of negotiation. When a threatening group was described as having malicious intent toward one’s nation, at least partially in response to exploitation by one’s country, participants also report more desire to negotiate, compared to when the threatening group harbors malicious intent that wasn’t provoked. In other words, when a threatening group is perceived as lacking a moral compass, a minimal requirement to ensure follow-through on a diplomatic agreement, individuals support an alternative response. Obama’s hesitation to reach a diplomatic solution in Syria, for example, may indicate his cabinet’s lack of faith in the Syrian regime to comply with negotiated commitments.

We also found that the extent to which participants felt anger was positively associated with desire to harm and avoid the terrorist group. Fear, was likewise positively associated with desires to harm and avoid the terrorist group, but unlike anger, it was also associated with negotiation intentions. The more fearful participants felt, the more they wanted to attack, avoid, and negotiate with threatening groups. Thus it was negotiation intentions that differentiated clearly between anger and fear. When individuals feel afraid, negotiation is once again considered a viable preventative option.

Terrorism and other forms of threat from non-state actors are a growing global concern. However it isn’t only terrorist acts that have a deep global impact. Constant reminders of the potential for attack also have a deep psychological impact that directs popular support for global policy. Understanding those emotional reactions, as well as the appraisals which underlie them, is critical to understanding popular reactions to national policies ostensibly designed to keep people safe.

Author Information

MaitnerAngela Maitner is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the American University of Sharjah, with an honorary research appointment at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research investigates the role of emotion in intergroup relations, broadly defined, exploring reactions to terrorism, insult, and discrimination. She is a passionate believer in the need to study intergroup relations around the globe, taking inspiration from current events.

GinerSorollaRoger Giner-Sorolla is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, Canterbury. He is the author of a book from Psychology Press, “Judging Passions: Moral Emotions in Persons and Groups,” as well as numerous articles in high impact psychology journals and volumes. His favorite emotions – to study, if not to feel – are anger, disgust, shame, and guilt.  Among other topics, he has published work on the role of emotions in apologies (shame works better than guilt) and the responsiveness of different moral emotions to logical argument (disgust is less reasonable than anger). A more recent publishing topic for Professor Giner-Sorolla is reform in the methodology and reporting of psychological research, supported by his membership of the Center of Open Science.


Cohen, T. (2013, August 8). Response to terror threat scrutinized: Did U.S. go too far? CNN. Retrieved September 27, 2013 from

Giner-Sorolla, R. & Maitner, A. T. (2013). Angry at the unjust, scared of the powerful: Emotional responses to terrorist threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1069-1082. doi: 10.1177/0146167213490803

Kulish, N. & Gettleman, J. (2013, September 25). U.S. sees direct threat in attack at Kenya mall. The New York Times. Retrieved September 28, 2013 from

Latifi, A. M. (2013, February 26). Taliban talks in Doha drag on endlessly. AlJazeera. Retrieved September 28, 2013 from

Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C. W., & Mullen, E. (2004). Political tolerance and coming to psychological closure following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: An integrative approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 743-756. doi: 10.1177/0146167204263968

U.S. Department of State (2013, August 2). Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens. Retrieved August 2, 2013 from

Walsh, N. O. & Labott, E. (2013, September 28). Security Council Oks Syria resolution, warns of consequences. CNN. Retrieved September 28 from

Walt, S. M. (2013, September 26). Threat inflation 6.0: Does al-Shabab really threaten the U.S.?  Foreign Policy. Retrieved September 28, 2013 from

Willer, R. (2004). The effects of government-issued terror warnings on presidential approval ratings. Current Research in Social Psychology, 10, 1-13. Retrieved from

Willer, R., & Adams, N. (2008). The threat of terrorism and support for the 2008 presidential candidates: Results of a national field experiment. Current Research in Social Psychology, 14, 1-22. Retrieved from

Image Credit:  Certified by the Creative Commons as Public Domain Dedicated image, as the person who associated a work with this deed (Gerd Altmann) has dedicated the work to the public domain by waiving all of his or her rights to the work worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.

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