Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Voters Versus Terrorists: Who's Winning?

How does terrorism affect voter turnout?

 "Peace for Paris"
Source: Jean Jullien: "Peace for Paris"

Civilized people everywhere are saddened, sickened, frightened, and infuriated by this weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris. While our hearts ache for the victims of this latest revolting episode of the inhumanity to which some will go to gain power over others, it is important to step back and note that the terrorists don’t always win.

As a case in point, a couple of years ago Joseph Robbins (Shepherd University), Lance Hunter (Georgia Regents University), and I published research analyzing the effect of terrorism on voter turnout. Previous research on emotion, political cognition, and political behavior led us to believe that terrorism would increase voter turnout.

In particular, we argued that terrorist attacks are threatening and novel events in democracies. The threat and novelty trigger a psychological system known as the surveillance system (as opposed to the status quo-oriented, habit-driven, cognitively disengaged dispositional system), which motivates people to scrutinize the political environment more closely and to assign greater importance to current and upcoming political events. As a result of their greater political interest and the increased value they place on near-term political events, like elections, we hypothesized citizens would be more likely to vote in upcoming elections.

To test this, we analyzed more than 350 legislative elections held in more than 50 democracies spanning more than 30 years (1975 to 2007). The results showed that elections within a year after a terrorist attack had about two percentage points greater turnout than elections following a year without an attack. If the attack caused a death, turnout was as much as three percentage points greater than a year without an attack. And finally, as the number of attacks and fatalities increased, the percentage of citizens who turned out to vote also increased.

Are terrorists winning? If the measure is their ability to thwart voting in democracies, the answer is clearly “no.”

- - -

For more information:

Robbins, Hunter, & Murray. 2013. “Voters versus terrorists: Analyzing the effect of terrorist events on voter turnout.” Journal of Peace Research 50(4): 495-508.

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg at

If you enjoyed this post, please share it by email or on Facebook or Twitter.

Follow Gregg on: Facebook / Twitter

More from Psychology Today

More from Gregg R. Murray Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today