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Firsthand experience, government trust affect response to terror alerts

Daniel Antonius

Daniel Antonius' new book examines how emotional responses to terrorism, especially fear, can influence the political process. Photo: Douglas Levere

By ELLEN GOLDBAUM

Published August 15, 2013

“Researchers from Norway present compelling research showing that a high level of institutional trust in a society may serve as a protective factor.”
Daniel Antonius, assistant professor
Department of Psychiatry
"The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears" cover

Recent terror alerts, including U.S. embassy closings and travel restrictions, can trigger a surprisingly broad range of responses in individuals, a psychologist who studies the impact of terrorism says.

Daniel Antonius, assistant professor of psychiatry and a forensic psychologist who studies terrorism, violence and aggression, says that individuals and societies respond to terror alerts and news foretelling terror events in different ways.

Antonius is co-editor with Samuel J. Sinclair of “The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears,” forthcoming this month from Oxford University Press, which examines how emotional responses to terrorism, especially fear, can influence the political process.

He explains that firsthand experience with a terror event, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, can lead to increased susceptibility to future terror threats and heightened levels of anxiety and depression in a given community.

“One might expect people in Boston, or at least the city’s more vulnerable populations, to experience heightened levels of worry, fear, avoidance and possibly anger,” he says.

“People already prone to mental health problems, people with disabilities and immigrants have been found to be more susceptible to terror threats.

 “While such symptoms likely won’t reach the level of a psychiatric disorder, they may influence how people carry out their daily activities, such as avoiding public transportation or air travel, being in public or in large crowds,” Antonius adds.

Still, even in Boston, he says the likelihood that large segments of the population would experience such fears in light of elevated threat levels is low.

“Due to our biologically built-in resilience to trauma, most people are not likely to experience these symptoms, or at least not consciously,” he says. “In my previous book, co-authored with Justin Sinclair, “The Psychology of Terrorism Fears,” we discussed the paradox of how fear can negatively affect people and societies, but it can also be a central force underlying resilience and post-traumatic growth in the context of terrorism.”

Antonius’ new book describes how, in some societies, a terror event can lead to these kinds of responses. An example is Norway and the aftermath of the terror event of July 22, 2011, in which Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a premeditated terror attack.

“Researchers from Norway present compelling research showing that a high level of institutional trust in a society may serve as a protective factor,” he says. “This trust, instead of fear, may lead to a ‘rallying without fear’ after a terror event, in which there is a remobilization of existing trust relationships, resulting in an increased sense of national togetherness.

“The take-home message from this study is that societies in which there is a great deal of trust in the government may respond differently to terror events than societies in which there is a lower level of trust,” he says.

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