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Institute of Medicine (US) Steering Committee for the Symposium on the Medical Implications of Nuclear War; Solomon F, Marston RQ, editors. The Medical Implications of Nuclear War. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1986.

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The Medical Implications of Nuclear War.

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Adult Beliefs, Feelings, and Actions Regarding Nuclear War: Evidence from Surveys and Experiments

Susan T. Fiske, PH.D.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts

I would like to begin with a story. I have a friend who has cancer, and she has reason to believe that she has a one-third chance of dying from it. She understands this diagnosis, but her possible death remains somewhat hypothetical to her. She imagines it mostly in the abstract, and she talks about missing the city and her occasional trips into the country. She does not talk so much about missing the people in her life. She believes she cannot do anything to change her odds. She does not worry about it very often; it mostly is not salient to her. If asked about it, she reports fear and worry, and certainly she prefers effective treatment to nothing. But she does not change her life with regard to her cancer. She does not seek support. She does not join organizations. She does not discuss her situation publicly. She goes on about her normal life. Some people say she is marvelous, remarkable, life-affirming, brave, and adaptable. Other people say she is suppressing her fear, denying reality, and desensitized to her own death.

My friend is the average American citizen. Her cancer is the possibility of a nuclear war. This portrait of her reactions resembles the portrait I will draw of the ordinary person's reactions to the possibility of nuclear war. I have described it this way initially because it is becoming difficult to have a fresh perspective on this issue. I will come back to this point at the end, but it may be useful to keep the story in mind while reading this paper.

This paper addresses three issues. First, it describes the average citizen's response to the possibility of nuclear war. Second, it describes possible sources of that response. And, third, it contrasts the average citizen with the antinuclear activist and the survivalist.

In describing adult response to nuclear war, I use a three-part distinction that is standard in social psychology. As the title indicates, this paper separately examines people's beliefs, feelings, and actions. Beliefs include conceptions of the likelihood of nuclear war, images of mushroom clouds and utter destruction, and expectations about one's own survival. People's feelings, for these purposes, consist of their reported emotional reactions and their nuclear policy preferences. People's activity regarding the possibility of nuclear war includes political activity and survival activity.

With respect to most issues, people's beliefs, feelings, and actions are fairly consistent; such consistency enables psychological equilibrium. In the context of nuclear war, however, there are major discrepancies between the ordinary person's beliefs, on the one hand, and the ordinary person's feelings and actions, on the other hand. Although this observation is not entirely new, there has been little effort to review the hard data concerning the modal person's beliefs, feelings, and actions.1 The sources of data include more than 50 studies from social and behavioral science: mainly surveys of adults, with preference given to national findings, where available, over local findings; some questionnaire studies of college students; and a few experimental studies with college students. The data span a period from 1945 to the present, and they lend some new insights into the discrepancies among people's beliefs, feelings, and actions.

Modal Beliefs about Nuclear War

People think of nuclear war as somewhat unlikely, imagining mainly complete material destruction, in the abstract, with themselves definitely not surviving.

Psychologists have long attempted to document people's beliefs about nuclear war, primarily using survey interviews and questionnaires, but also drawing on the in-depth relationship of the clinical setting (for historical overviews, see Klineberg [1984] and Morowski and Goldstein [ 1985]). Immediately following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first surveys began to examine people's attitudes toward the bomb and its use. Attitude surveys ebbed and flowed over the next four decades, peaking after the Russians' first atomic test, the creation of the hydrogen bomb, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) initiatives, and during the present unprecedented level of worldwide concern over nuclear weapons (Kramer et al., 1983). The number of surveys reflects variations in levels of public interest, as indicated by citation frequencies in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature (Polyson et al., 1985). Complementing the survey efforts, some clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have lately begun to note the intrusion of concerns about nuclear war within the therapy hour.

This review of the survey data will suggest that ordinary people's nuclear war beliefs have changed remarkably little over the four eventful decades since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite massive technological change in the power of the weapons and in their delivery time, despite their considerable proliferation, and despite dramatic fluctuations in the geopolitical situation, we will see that the adult American's response has endured with remarkable consistency. Moreover, people's responses differ surprisingly little across age, gender, race, education, income, and political ideology. Apparently this is one thing on which ordinary citizens agree, and have agreed, for decades.

Most important, people view nuclear war as not very probable, a hypothetical event. The average person views nuclear war as fairly unlikely within the next 10 years.2 A local survey in Pittsburgh found that, on average, people estimated a one-third chance of a nuclear war within their lifetimes (Fiske et al., 1983), and a local sample in Chicago put the estimate at one-half (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Three decades ago, people were asked about the likelihood of another world war, which they overwhelmingly believed would be nuclear; they viewed such a war as somewhat more likely than people do now, but the average person still estimated the chances as 50/50 (Withey, 1954). People are considerably more pessimistic about the possibility of nuclear war if a conventional war should erupt. Since 1946, between 63 and 79 percent of Americans have believed that any subsequent major war would necessarily be nuclear (Kramer et al., 1983). Overall, however, the indications are that people now view nuclear war as unlikely, on balance.

If the hypothetical were to occur, people expect it would be horrific. As early as 1954 and as recently as 1982, survey respondents described similar images of the event and its aftermath (Fiske et al., 1983; Withey, 1954).3 Two features of these descriptions are notable. First, material destruction is described more than human destruction, and second, abstract content outweighs concrete content. This primary emphasis on the material and abstract, rather than on concrete human devastation, is in marked contrast to the descriptions of Hiroshima survivors, who focus almost entirely on the human misery (e.g., Lifton, 1968; Thurlow, 1982; Time, 1985a).

In describing what is hypothetical to them, American citizens report images involving material damage, mostly in the abstract as complete ruin or sometimes in the concrete as a blinding light; as buildings on fire; and, subsequently, as dust, barren land, and no cities. References to death and injury also occur, mostly in the abstract, but also sometimes as concrete references to the death of family and friends; to charred bodies; and to injuries such as mutilation, bums, bleeding, hair loss, sores, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some typical, but longer than average, responses to our telephone survey (Fiske et al., 1983, p. 55) include three relatively abstract ones:

  • Nobody left. We'll just all be blown up. The loser will be gone completely.
  • It would destroy people. Everything in the world. All the beautiful things will be gone.
  • Death. Destruction. Chaos. Survival. Hiroshima. And two relatively concrete ones:
  • I hope I die with everyone else. I can't see planning for it. Utter destruction, desolation, ruin.
  • Death. Buildings on fire. Screaming. Wondering what to do. Being scared. Take cover. Wondering what to do next.

The typical images elicited in this survey setting contain about twice as much abstract content as concrete content. People report general impressions more than specific, sensory, proximate, personal impressions. And, as noted, they focus more on material damage than on human damage. One naturally wonders whether the telephone survey context determines the abstractness and material focus of these reports.

Turning to the highly personal, in-depth setting of a clinical approach, some observers report that they, their patients, or both have vivid images of nuclear holocaust (e.g., Nelson, 1985; Pilisuk, 1985; Wolman, 1984, cited in Wagner, 1985). Lifton (1983) describes end-of-the-world imagery in literature and in some individuals. For example, a ''vision of crashing skyscrapers under a flaming sky," was reported by nuclear physicist and activist Eugene Rabinowitch and "dreams of doom" were reported by United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Artists have depicted their visions of the bomb and nuclear catastrophe (Boyer, 1985; Time, 1985b). For example, James Agee created a fragment of a novel depicting official celebrations of the bomb above ground, with twisted, menacing events below ground (as described in Boyer [1985]).

Of course, although these data provide an intimate view of a few people's concrete images, it is not clear that these people are typical of the larger public who are not artists, or who do not seek out a therapist known to be a peace activist, or who are not themselves prominent peace activists. People with nuclear war images oriented toward the concrete and the human may well be exceptional. Indeed, Lifton (1983) argues that vivid end-of-the-world imagery involves "an anticipatory imagination capable of sensitivity to a trend of events which other people have become numb to" (p. 131). For the present purposes, survey documentation of the modal citizen's image seems the most reliable indicator of how most people understand nuclear war. By this evidence, the images are more abstract than concrete, more oriented toward material ruin than human misery. At the same time, people expect complete annihilation.

Included in that annihilation is the self. The ordinary person does not expect to survive a nuclear holocaust. Even abstract references are clear in that respect (utter destruction, nobody left, annihilation). Moreover, when specifically asked whether they personally would expect to survive, people on average rate their chances as poor (The Gallup Poll, 1983; cf. Kramer et al., 1983). People's perception that they would not survive a nuclear war represents the only major change from people's earlier beliefs. The number of people rating their chances as poor has steadily increased over the decades from about 40 percent in the 1950s to about 70 percent today (The Gallup Poll, 1983). In the early 1950s, survey respondents commented about the quality of life after an atomic attack, describing the possible psychological and economic aftermath (Withey, 1954). They described the possibilities of panic, low or high morale, scarcity of food, production problems, and failed transportation systems. In describing these long-term effects of an atomic attack, the clear majority of people (68 percent) thought that the military would provide complete protection or at least prevent heavy damage. Today, people no longer believe that the U.S. military has the capacity to prevent heavy damage, probably because they perceive the Soviet Union to be ahead in the arms race and because they believe that a nuclear war cannot be limited (Kramer et al., 1983). Thus, people used to comment about the quality of life in a post-nuclear-war world; now they do not expect to see it.

To summarize, people report horrific images consisting of mostly abstract content related to extreme material destruction, along with content that is concrete and content related to terrible human destruction. Most people now do not expect to survive a nuclear confrontation, in contrast to earlier expectations. However, people's modal belief about a nuclear war includes a relatively moderate expectation of its occurrence. Finally, these beliefs do not differ dramatically across identifiable sectors of the adult population.

Modal Feelings about Nuclear War

People worry seldom, but they overwhelmingly favor a mutual nuclear freeze.

The beliefs people commonly report about a nuclear holocaust are bleak, which implies that people should also report some concomitant emotional reactions. When asked directly what emotions come to mind regarding a nuclear war, the typical person does report fear, terror, and worry (Fiske et al., 1983) or fear and sadness (Skovholt et al., 1985). On the whole, however, most people do not frequently think about nuclear war (Fiske et al., 1983; Hamilton et al., 1985a). The typical adult apparently worries seldom or relatively little about the possibility (Kramer et al., 1983). And such emotional responses do not vary dramatically as a function of social class or overall political ideology.

Women sometimes report more anxiety than do men (e.g., Hamilton et al., 1985d; Newcomb, 1985a), but this may be due to reporting biases caused by gender role differences in the perceived appropriateness of revealing one's feelings (e.g., Ruble and Ruble, 1982). Many studies of children also report higher levels of concern (e.g., Escalona, 1982; Goodman et al., 1983; Schwebel, 1982; see also W. R. Beardslee, this volume, for a review of representative sample surveys). Similarly, college students report more distress than do their parents (Hamilton et al., 1985d). Again, however, it is not clear how much this difference is due to reporting biases, as opposed to actual levels of felt worry. Quite possibly, many of the same factors that determine one's willingness to report worry publicly also determine one's willingness to admit worry privately, but it would be difficult to evaluate this premise empirically. The available evidence indicates, on the whole, that the modal level of reported worry is not high.

The relatively low level of worry is puzzling to many observers, given people's consensual horrific images and their low estimates of personal survival. If one combines people's estimated probability of nuclear war and their estimated probability of dying, should a nuclear war occur, people are essentially saying that they have about one chance in three of dying from a nuclear attack. Returning to the analogy used at the beginning of the paper, if most people received a cancer diagnosis giving comparable odds, they would doubtless be considerably upset. Why is there this discrepancy between people's understanding and their feelings?

One commonly suggested possibility is that people cope emotionally with the threat of nuclear war in different ways. Some preliminary survey evidence indicates that people take distinct cognitive and emotional stances that range from romanticist to hedonist to fatalist to deterrentist to disarmist and that their emotional reactions vary accordingly (Hamilton et al., 1985a). For example, romanticists believe that fundamental human goodness will prevent nuclear war, and they report little anxiety, worry, and thought about the issue. Hedonists believe that the prospect of nuclear war justifies immediate gratification, and they report a high degree of personal impact, a high probability of nuclear war, but only moderate worry and moderate anxiety. Altruistic fatalists believe nuclear war is quite possible but not preventable, so in the meantime they should work for the good of humanity, and they report low levels of personal impact and anxiety. Deterrentists report some worry and anxiety and they estimate a moderate probability of nuclear war. Disarmists report the highest levels of thought, worry, and anxiety.

More generally, people's level of nuclear anxiety is related to nonconforming attitudes, felt vulnerability, drug use, low self-esteem, and perceived lack of social support (Newcomb, 1985b). Similarly, nuclear anxiety is related to death anxiety (Hamilton et al., 1985b). Of course, the direction of causality is not clear. People who experience nuclear anxiety may therefore be more vulnerable socially and emotionally (e.g., Escalona, 1982), but the reverse is equally possible: people who are vulnerable for other reasons may then focus disproportionately on the nuclear threat. These are promising lines of inquiry, but the data on these matters are only beginning to come in.

Clinical interviews—with less representative samples but with more depth—indicate deep-seated worry, fear, and anxiety on the part of some individuals (Nelson, 1985; Wolman, 1984, cited in Wagner, 1985). These individuals are not typical of the larger population, however, so unfortunately, we do not know whether the interviews uncovered something about those particular people or a deeper truth about all of us.

The essential research requires both in-depth interviews and representative samples; it apparently remains to be done. Nevertheless, the best current evidence indicates that, although people report concern when asked, for most people, most of the time, the issue is not emotionally central.

People's feelings about nuclear war emerge more dramatically, however, in their policy preferences. The typical person clearly supports a mutual freeze on nuclear arms, although not a unilateral freeze (The Gallup Poll, 1983; Kramer et al., 1983). Support for a mutual freeze is remarkably consensual (77 percent agree); it is unusually broad based, showing few differences across gender, age, income, and education (Milburn et al., 1984); and it has held firm over the decades since 1945 (Ladd, 1982). The typical person believes that the use of atomic weapons in Japan was necessary and proper but does not accept their use any longer (Kramer et al., 1983).

Some group differences in attitudes do occur regarding the use of nuclear force, with men and older generations being more supportive. Men and women have differed consistently, although not dramatically, in their acceptance of the use and risks of nuclear weapons since 1949, with women being less favorable. This fits with the 5 to 10 percent gender gap on other foreign policy issues related to force (e.g., Public Opinion, 1985). Political generations also differ in their approval of the use of force generally and in the nuclear case specifically (Jeffries, 1974; Pavelchak and Schofield, 1985); there is a nuclear generation gap, with younger generations being somewhat less accepting of the use of force. Income and education can influence nuclear force attitudes (Jeffries, 1974), with increases in either leading to decreased support, although this is not found consistently (Milburn et al., 1984). Note that the gender, age, and class differences do not occur in nuclear freeze support (Milburn et al., 1984), but only in the use of nuclear force, should the occasion arise.

Modal Actions Regarding Nuclear War

Most people do nothing.

The typical person does not act in any way that goes beyond voicing support for the policy of a nuclear freeze. Age, gender, and social class are not reliable predictors of activism, although political ideology may be. Most people simply do not write antinuclear letters to the editor or to their elected representatives, they do not join or financially support the relevant organizations, and they do not sign petitions (Fiske et al., 1983; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; Pavelchak and Schofield, 1985; Tyler and McGraw, 1983). From one perspective, given people's nuclear war beliefs, including the low likelihood of personal survival and their at least minimal worry, they might be expected to be more active. What is especially surprising, to some observers, is that people are inactive in a matter of such literally earth-shattering consequence. From another perspective, however, the inaction of ordinary citizens is not at all surprising, for most people most of the time pay scant attention to politics and almost never engage in political activity beyond voting, if that (Kinder and Sears, 1985; Milbrath and Goel, 1977). Moreover, with regard to this particular issue, there is no evidence that people expect their actions to have consequences; that is, they have a low sense of political efficacy. I will come back to this point.

To summarize, the modal person has strong beliefs about nuclear war. Although it seems to them fairly unlikely that it will occur and people describe it mostly in the abstract, the modal person imagines total material and human destruction and emphatically does not expect to survive. People's feelings are elusive; they do not worry about nuclear war very often, but when asked, they report that the possibility of nuclear war is fearsome and they overwhelmingly favor a mutual nuclear freeze. Most people do not act in support of their beliefs and feelings.

Sources of the Consensual Beliefs, Feelings, and (In) Action

Family, friends, and the media

Most aspects of the typical person's response are remarkably consistent across different sectors of the population. One naturally wonders about the sources of such a powerful consensus. There are two especially plausible sources.

It seems evident that people's significant others would fashion their responses to the possibility of nuclear war. Unfortunately, on this point the hard data are sparse. Moreover, they are limited to nuclear policy attitudes, so the data do not describe the sources of people's more emotional responses, their beliefs, or their actions. As with most political attitudes, one might expect that the parents primarily socialize the child (Kinder and Sears, 1985), but the data on children's responses to nuclear war suggest that this may not be the case (W. R. Beardslee, this volume). In one study, college students' stance toward nuclear war resembled the perceived but not actual stance of their parents (Hamilton et al., 1985a,c). Thus, although they think they share their parents' perspective, perhaps they often do not. As noted earlier, young people are less accepting of the use of force, including nuclear force. This discrepancy is preserved by most families' reported failure to discuss nuclear issues (Hamilton et al., 1985c). One possible explanation for the actual but not perceived discrepancy between the attitudes of young people and their parents is that major political events can powerfully influence people's political attitudes, especially if they occur around adolescence. Such events account for generational shifts in people's attitudes toward the use of force, for example (Jeffries, 1974). Hence, postadolescents can experience cross pressures between family ties and world events. Perhaps the nuclear generation gap results from this.

Moving outside the family, it is well documented that people tend to have friends whose attitudes resemble their own, both because similarities attract and because friends influence each other (Berscheid, 1985). Moreover, people perceive that their friends' attitudes are similar, to an even greater extent than they actually are (Levinger and Breedlove, 1966; Newcomb, 1961). Hence, people probably perceive that their nuclear war attitudes are shared by their friends. Although the relevant evidence is slim, college students do perceive their friends to have similar attitudes (Hamilton et al., 1985a)—whether they do or not is another question. More data are needed to investigate how family and friends influence nuclear war attitudes in older adults as well as in college students.

The media are also plausible sources for the powerful consensus in people's nuclear beliefs, feelings, and actions. When directly asked the source of their responses to the possibility of nuclear war, people often cite media coverage (Fiske et al., 1983; Milburn et al., 1984). A recent media event allowed social researchers to investigate whether people's intuitions are right about this. Dozens of efforts examined the impact of the docudrama The Day After, which was televised in November 1983. I will devote considerable attention in this paper to that event, for several reasons. One is that it is a diagnostic example or case study of media effects. Another is that it allows me to make a point about motivating the average citizen to express an opinion based on his or her perceptions. Also, there are scores of studies on The Day After; it was the single major source of data available for this review. Finally, the conclusions are intriguingly well substantiated by research done a dozen years ago on the effects of the film Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945.

The single major impact of The Day After was to increase the salience of nuclear war as an issue. In 1970, a study examined the impact of the film Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945 (Granberg and Faye, 1972). Results of this study were strikingly parallel to those of The Day After studies. Like the recent film, the earlier film makes the abstract concrete and brings the unthinkable into awareness. And like the recent film, the earlier one demonstrates the specific ways that the media can influence people: by making certain issues salient and by reinforcing people's prior reactions. Consider each effect in turn.4

The Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945 study concluded that the film sensitized people to the issues of nuclear war. The Day After studies concluded similarly that the movie made nuclear war issues highly salient. People consistently reported that they spent more time thinking about nuclear war after watching the movie (Brown, 1984; Cross and Saxe, 1984; Feldman and Sigelman, in press; Reser, 1984; Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984), and they were far less likely to report that they put out of mind the threat of nuclear war (Warner-Amex Qube, 1983, cited in Schofield and Pavelchak, 1985). This salience effect was especially true of less-educated viewers (Feldman and Sigelman, in press). However, the heightened salience of nuclear war was short-lived, fading after several weeks (Reser, 1984; Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984). The temporary effect of The Day After on salience apparently was due to overall media hoopla rather than to the movie itself (Oskamp et al., 1984). Viewers and nonviewers alike reported more nuclear war-related thoughts after the movie (Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984). People also spent more time thinking about the issue if they had read newspaper articles about it or discussed it with others (Feldman and Sigelman, in press). The single clearest impact of The Day After was an increase in the salience of nuclear war in the media and, consequently, in people's minds. This was a temporary but widespread phenomenon.

If increased salience was the major impact of the movie (and other media events), what are the most likely effects of salience? Existing research indicates a general principle. Making an issue salient polarizes the individual's thoughts, feelings, and actions; that is, however the person would respond to a stimulus, the response becomes more extreme as a result of the salience of the issue (Taylor and Fiske, 1978). As people dwell on their thoughts, they become more focused (Tesser, 1978). As people think about their feelings, they become stronger, and as people focus on an issue, they are more likely to act on it. Salience exaggerates their response in whatever direction it would have tended to go anyway.

The effects of The Day After and Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945 are entirely consistent with these standard effects of salience. People's beliefs, which were bleak originally, became even more pessimistic. Two studies of The Day After directly examined changes in people's images of nuclear war, and the results confirm the potential influence of the media on people's concrete images. After the movie, people were considerably more pessimistic about the availability of shelters, the adequacy of medical care, the sufficiency of food supplies, the possibility of social chaos, the proportion of survivors, the likelihood of their own survival, and the possibility of rebuilding the country afterward (Feldman and Sigelman, in press; Oskamp et al., 1984). The politically inexperienced and the young were especially likely to report that they learned a lot from the movie (Oskamp et al., 1984). Considering the focus of The Day After, which concretely depicted the aftermath of nuclear war, the movie was effective in influencing people's images. Presumably, the movie was designed primarily to increase the salience of people' s concrete images, as are other persuasive attempts to bring nuclear war home to people.

Many observers also expected the movie to influence people's feelings—their emotions and nuclear policy preferences. Consistent with the usual effects of salience, The Day After not only worsened people's images of nuclear war, it also seems to have made people's emotional reactions somewhat more extreme. Notably, the earlier movie Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945 had increased people's reported anxiety and decreased their desire to survive a nuclear war (Granberg and Faye, 1972). The effects of The Day After apparently were similar. People reported that the film was disturbing, frightening, depressing, and numbing (Reser, 1984). Some people reported feeling more worried after watching the movie, and this was especially true for less-educated people (Feldman and Sigelman, in press). After the movie aired, watchers and nonwatchers alike reported more hopelessness regarding nuclear war and decreased desire to survive a nuclear war (Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984). Not all researchers found effects on all the relevant emotions, however; the data are somewhat uneven on these points. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the movie increased people's prior emotional reactions to the prospect of nuclear war. According to one experimental study, widespread public expectations that the movie would be upsetting probably enhanced its emotional impact (Baumann et al., 1984; but see Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984). Moreover, the self-selected audience may have especially expected the movie to have great impact, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (Cross and Saxe, 1984). Regardless of why the movie enhanced people's worries, its emotional impact lasted for at least a couple of weeks (Oskamp et al., 1984). Given that most people report at least moderate worry over nuclear war, emotional responses to The Day After seemed to be exaggerations of those prior feelings, caused by the temporary salience of nuclear war in all the media. Social science research indicates that the media chiefly serve to reinforce people's existing feelings, by bringing certain issues into public salience (Kinder and Sears, 1985). These conclusions fit media coverage of nuclear issues well.

In addition to its effects on people's emotions, some observers expected The Day After to change people's policy preferences, as if to make them instant pacifists. Despite unprecedented preshowing fuss by the network, administration officials, news magazines, antinuclear groups, prodefense groups, therapists, and educators, the movie had no measurable impact on people's nuclear policy preferences. Study after study—which together asked varied questions, used samples that ranged from national to local to classroom, at times that ranged from minutes to days to months after the show—found no effects on nuclear policy preferences (Adams et al., 1984; Baumann et al., 1984; Brown, 1984; Cross and Saxe, 1984; Feldman and Sigelman, in press; Gutierres et al., 1984; Kelly, 1983; Mayton, 1984; McFadden, 1983; Oskamp et al., 1984; Reser, 1984; Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984, 1985; Wolf et al., in press). The movie had essentially no impact on people's attitudes toward arms control, defense spending, perceived likelihood of nuclear war, trust in government leaders' handling of war and peace, or personal political efficacy regarding war and peace issues. Similarly, the earlier film Hiroshima-Nagasaki: 1945 had no effects on nuclear policy preferences.

In retrospect, none of this is surprising. The media provide information to people, especially to the young and the less educated, but they do not typically change people's attitudes. This is not what most people think the media do, but social scientists have long studied the impact of the media on people's policy preferences. For quite a while, research has shown little or no impact of the media on people's political attitudes (Kinder and Sears, 1985), creating the law of minimal effects. There are several reasons for this. People's policy preferences are long-standing predispositions, reinforced by others in their environment and by their own inattention to political inputs. People's political preferences come from their enduring memberships in particular social groups, from their lifelong values, and from traumatic historical events. People's political preferences regarding nuclear war and other policy issues do not come from persuasion by the media.

Also, in this case, people's policy preferences, at least with regard to the mutual freeze, are fairly strong already, so it would be difficult for them to become more strong than they already are. Finally, The Day After was not addressing policy issues (cf. Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984), nor was it addressing the efficacy of political action (cf. Wolf et al., in press).

In sum, with respect to people's beliefs and feelings, people's prior reactions to nuclear war were not substantially changed; their images, emotions, and policy preferences were not transformed to be opposite from what they had been before. Few, if any, were converted to pacifism. But conversion to the opposite is not the only way for people to change. The movie enhanced people's bleak images. It had some impact on the extremity of people's reported emotions, which were stronger after the movie. Both probably resulted from the overall media coverage that dramatically heightened the salience of nuclear war.

Some observers also expected The Day After to have a galvanizing effect on nuclear protest activities. However, single media events do not typically influence people's political action. Consistent with this standard research result, people did not register protests with the government or the public media. The movie did not create a flood of mail or calls to the White House, Congress, the networks, or the newspapers (Schofield and Pavelchak, 1985). However, the salience of the nuclear war issue did affect people's behavior in very particular ways. Salience typically catalyzes people to action (Taylor and Fiske, 1978.) because people are more likely to act on their attitudes when they are held in awareness (Kiesler et al., 1969). Consistent with this usual effect of salience, The Day After motivated people's intent to act on their feelings, although in limited ways. People called an antinuclear toll-free number given on television, they contacted Physicians for Social Responsibility, and they contacted other antinuclear groups (King, 1985; Oskamp et al., 1984; Schofield and Pavelchak, 1985; cf. Wolf et al., in press). People contacted these sources mainly to seek information rather than to engage in antinuclear action. Thus, The Day After changed the salience of nuclear war, thereby spot-lighting people's prior concerns and enhancing their intent to act on their existing attitudes. Presumably, the movie did this by increasing the salience of people' s concrete images. Consistent with the aims of antinuclear groups' efforts to make people's images of nuclear war concrete, salient concrete images were indeed associated with antinuclear action, in this event, as is true in general (Fiske et al., 1983; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; note that the latter researchers suggest that both concrete and abstract images may be associated with antinuclear action).

To summarize, the movie had a remarkably clear impact on people's beliefs, emotions, and information-seeking behavior; it had remarkably little impact on their policy preferences and political behavior. A movie such as The Day After can change the images of the inexperienced. And the salience of people's prior worries about nuclear war can be enhanced by massive media events, such as this one, presumably by increasing the amount of thought people give to their feelings and to their concrete images. Salience also motivates people's behavioral intentions to act on their existing feelings, at least in terms of gathering information. These effects may be especially true of the politically inexperienced, the young, and the less educated. Apart from the media, people's overall attitudes toward nuclear war may well be shaped by significant others in their lives, as are other political attitudes, but the data are sparse on this point.

Predispositions to Action

Antinuclear activists and survivalists both think a lot about nuclear war and believe they can do something about it.

Despite media events such as The Day After, for most people, most of the time, nuclear war is not a salient concern. But it is for a tiny fraction of the population. The tiny fraction for whom the issue is chronically salient is an important fraction: they tend to be active, and they create events that the media cover, so they potentially make the issue more salient for everyone. Salience exaggerates people's propensity to act in whatever direction they already would tend to act. Hence, two types of action can be spurred by salience: antinuclear action and prodefense action. This section will portray the typical antinuclear activist and the typical pro-defense activist because they provide some clues to the discrepancy between people's bleak beliefs and their usual inaction.

The antinuclear activist may have engaged in only a few modest behaviors, such as writing congressional representatives and donating money to antinuclear groups. Nevertheless, this is far more than the average person does, and far more than people's usual levels of political activity. Even this humble degree of antinuclear action is worth examining. Factors that motivate antinuclear protest centrally include an extreme chronic salience of the issue and an unusual sense of political efficacy, as well as some attitudinal and demographic factors.

Chronic personal salience clearly distinguishes the activist. Antinuclear activists report that they frequently think about the issue (Fiske et al., 1983; Hamilton et al., 1985a; Pavelchak and Schofield, 1985), on the order of several minutes a day. Having the issue on their minds apparently creates detailed and concrete images of nuclear war (Fiske et al., 1983; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985). The examples given earlier are also illustrative here: images of dismembered bodies, people screaming, buildings on fire, miles of rubble, and a barren landscape. Presumably, these uniquely salient concrete images are motivating for these people. Moreover, the combination of high perceived severity and high perceived likelihood of nuclear war is a good predictor of intent to become involved in antinuclear activity (Wolf et al., in press).

The activist also has a strong sense of political efficacy (Flamenbaum et al., 1985; Garrett, 1985; Hamilton et al., 1985d; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; Oskamp et al., 1984; Tyler and McGraw, 1983). The antinuclear activist believes that nuclear war is preventable, not inevitable, and that citizens working together can influence government action to decrease the chance of a nuclear war. The antinuclear activist is specifically motivated by a sense of personal political capability, combined with a belief in the efficacy of political action (Wolf et al., in press). The correlation between political efficacy and behavioral intent is substantial by social science standards (Schofield and Pavelchak, 1984; Wolf et al., in press). Moreover, although activists believe that governments create the risk of nuclear war, they also believe that citizens can and should be responsible for preventing it (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Not surprisingly, considering their strong sense of political efficacy, antinuclear activists tend to participate in other types of political activities as well (Fiske et al., 1983; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; Oskamp et al., 1984).

Note that although activists believe nuclear war is preventable, they do not believe it is survivable (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Hence, their sense of efficacy is limited to political activity, not to their own ability to live through the holocaust should they fail.

How do people develop a strong sense of political efficacy? Doubtless there are complex personal and social causes (Kinder and Sears, 1985). The activist's sense of political efficacy is linked to a broad sense of personal, rather than external, control over life events in general (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Moreover, antinuclear activists perceive social support for their actions from role models, family, friends, and people who are important to them (Flamenbaum et al., 1985; Garrett, 1985; McClenny and Allbright, 1985; Pavelchak and Schofield, 1985). Antinuclear activists, then, are people who think about nuclear war a lot and think they can help prevent its occurrence, and they are fortified by a sense of personal control and social support for their activity.

In addition to heightened salience and efficacy, antinuclear activists differ from the modal person in some less clear-cut and less interesting ways. They of course have even stronger antinuclear attitudes than does the average citizen (Fiske et al., 1983; Flamenbaum et al., 1985). They sometimes report more worry, more anxiety, more anger, more outrage, and less hopelessness (Garrett, 1985; Hamilton et al., 1985b,d; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; Oskamp et al., 1984; Tyler and McGraw, 1983).5 Antinuclear activists may be more likely to be liberals and Democrats (Oskamp et al., 1984; Tyler and McGraw, 1983; Werner and Roy, 1985), although this result is not always found (Fiske et al., 1983; Pavelchak and Schofield, 1985). They may be more likely to be educated and well-off (Tyler and McGraw, 1983), although, again, not all researchers find this (Fiske et al., 1983; Flamenbaum et al., 1985; Milburn and Watanabe, 1985).

Finally, the activists' view of the likelihood of nuclear war is still unclear. One might expect that frequently imagining the event would make it seem more likely (Carroll, 1978). On the other hand, activity by oneself and others might be viewed as decreasing the odds of nuclear war, especially for people with a strong sense of efficacy. Some research indicates that antinuclear activists indeed do estimate a higher probability of nuclear war (Milburn and Watanabe, 1985; Tyler and McGraw, 1983; but cf. Fiske et al., 1983). More data are clearly needed on all these points.

To summarize, antinuclear activists are distinguished by the chronic salience of the issue and their consequently concrete, detailed images. They are also distinctive by virtue of their political efficacy, in the sense that they believe nuclear war is preventable but not survivable. Antinuclear activists do not, however, differ dramatically from the majority of Americans in their attitudes toward nuclear war; they express only somewhat more extreme attitudes and feelings than does the ordinary American. Hence, it is mainly their activity, not their thoughts and feelings, that requires explanation. Issue salience and political efficacy go some distance toward doing this.

Less is known about the prodefense activist. In a sense, such people are doubly puzzling, for they are likely not only to oppose a nuclear freeze and favor a defense buildup, which puts them in a minority of Americans, but also to be active in the service of their attitudes, which also makes them unusual. One form of prodefense activism is survivalist activity that includes building a shelter, storing food and water, making family evacuation plans, and the like. Survivalists rate nuclear war as relatively probable (Tyler and McGraw, 1983; but see Hamilton et al., 1985a). Accordingly, nuclear war may well be a chronically salient issue for them, as it is for the antinuclear activist. In this case, however, salience catalyzes an entirely different sort of activity, which is in line with different preexisting attitudes. How they acquired those attitudes is unclear, but long-standing predispositions grounded in family, peer, and group identification are likely influences.

Survivalists' type of efficacy differs too from those of ordinary people and antinuclear activists. Survivalists believe that nuclear war is not preventable, but that it is survivable (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Hence, although survivalists believe nuclear war is likely, they do not report being worried about it (Hamilton et al., 1985a; Tyler and McGraw, 1983). Consistent with their belief that nuclear war is not preventable, survivalists are low on political efficacy. Surprisingly, they are also low on what psychologists call internal locus of control; that is, they do not believe they have much effect on their lives in general. Perhaps this is consistent with their belief that responsibility for nuclear war lies with historical forces, not with the ordinary citizen or the government (Tyler and McGraw, 1983). More data are needed to describe not only the survivalist but also other types of more obviously prodefense activists.

To summarize, action first depends on people's sense of efficacy, that is, their perception of whether action might make a difference to the prevention of nuclear war and to their own survival. Action also depends on the salience of people's beliefs, that is, how often they think about nuclear war. Political efficacy and issue salience matter both to people who act to prevent nuclear war and to people who act to survive nuclear war if it occurs.


Decades ago psychologists anticipated people's fears about the bomb; they initially worked to assuage these fears, to promote public trust in the atomic experts, and to examine civil defense from a psychological perspective (Morowski and Goldstein, 1985). But these efforts soon tapered off as it became clear that, surprisingly, the ordinary person was apparently less concerned than the researchers expected. Despite high levels of reported awareness about the issues, people report relatively little fear or worry, at least in survey interviews, and most people take no action to prevent nuclear war. Many observers have wondered publicly about the ordinary citizen's apparent indifference when confronted with the potential annihilation of humankind (e.g., Goldman and Greenberg, 1982; Lifton, 1982; Mack, 1981, 1982). These contrasts have prompted the enduring puzzle variously called fear suppression, psychic numbing, denial, and apathy, which are attributed to people's feelings of impotence, helplessness, inefficacy, and the like. The discrepancy between people's nuclear understanding and their elusive emotional and behavioral concern continues to be a puzzle.

Most participants in the symposium on which this proceedings volume is based and most readers of this book probably agree that nuclear war is an important issue, as shown by their involvement. But our personal and professional involvement in this issue has a risk. It creates a danger of what social psychologists call a false consensus bias (Ross et al., 1977); that is, it is too easy to believe that the average citizen shams a sense of urgency, shams a sense that something must be done. The false consensus biases us to believe that others share our attitudes. Becoming aware of the false consensus bias means realizing that, for the average citizen, the issue is not all that salient. We must not overestimate the degree of disturbance in the average person. Although they are clearly aware and deeply concerned, nuclear war, for the most part, is not on their minds. The average person is also low on political efficacy, which is probably in contrast to the majority of readers and symposium participants. But most people's inaction is consistent with their understanding of political reality. We must not judge people by our own values.

Remaining relatively unworried and inactive, despite the horrific possibility of nuclear war, is not irrational if people are correct in judging that their activism would have no consequences. The ordinary person does not possess the antinuclear activist's sense of political efficacy, does not believe that nuclear war is preventable by citizen actions. And, according to some analysts, people are right about this: the activity of one ordinary person hardly makes a difference. Some observers argue that even collective public opinion rarely influences foreign policy; they rank public opinion far behind perceived geopolitical realities in influencing government leaders' decisions in this realm (Rosenau, 1967). Some experts even argue that the public is not competent to judge in these matters anyway. If one accepts all these premises, then ordinary people's relative lack of worry and complete inaction, despite their horrific beliefs and clear expectation that they would die in a nuclear war, are not irrational. Viewed this way, one can come to the defense of the ordinary person, and there is no massive problem revealed by the discrepancy in beliefs, feelings, and action about nuclear war.

Many readers and symposium participants would resist this conclusion. Given the unbelievable magnitude of the potential event and the fact that most people understand this magnitude to a great extent, the discrepancy between their beliefs and their relatively unworried inaction might seem intolerable. Some would call it irrational, or at least a major mental health issue (e.g., Goldman and Greenberg, 1982). Caution dictates, however, that one not confuse the magnitude of the event with the realistic possibility of affecting its occurrence. No one really knows whether citizen action will help to prevent a nuclear war. It is not an empirical question, and informed opinions differ about the effectiveness of citizen action.

Hence, those who are worried cannot take it for granted that everyone shares their urgency, but that everyone has somehow suppressed it. One sees this in some psychologists' claims that the average person is dramatically disturbed about the possibility of nuclear war. Unfortunately, it is admittedly possible that researchers overestimate the ordinary person's concerns because they themselves are professionally concerned with nuclear war; the researchers' own values and concerns may lead to inadvertent exaggeration of the psychological disruption in the ordinary person (cf. Fischoff et al., 1983; Hamilton et al., 1985a).

Similarly, the politically active participants cannot take it for granted that everyone shares their sense of efficacy. Most people believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can do nothing with regard to nuclear war. Nevertheless, some people, not many, do share the active participants' sense of political efficacy. These are likely to be people who have been politically active before, and they can be mobilized to be active again. One role that the active few serve is to keep the issue salient for everyone.

There is a final lesson from the data reviewed here. People do have feelings and beliefs about nuclear war, and these are not inappropriate, given what is known. Granted, the issue of nuclear war is not central for most people, most of the time. When it is salient, however, people do respond to it. Because most people in the United States report that nuclear war creates worry, fear, and sadness when they think about it, and because most people support a mutual freeze, it seems likely that the effect of continued activity, on the part of some, makes the issue salient for everyone. Keeping the issue salient is likely to accentuate people's existing worry and their preference for a mutual nuclear freeze. For those inclined to be active in the service of their beliefs, there are two key tasks to give citizens a voice based on their perceptions of this horrific possibility.

First, we must find a way to give people a sense of political efficacy or hope through action. This is not easy, but one clear message of existing data is that one must pair fear-arousing communications with possible action solutions for people (cf. Skovholt et al., 1985; Wolf et al., in press). The solutions must be perceived to be politically effective and something the ordinary person is capable of doing.

Second, we must keep the issue salient by public events such as this symposium and by media coverage of those events, which, ironically, is even more important. Keeping the issue alive may help to keep us all alive.


I wish to thank William Beardslee, Michael Milburn, Steven Neuberg, Mark Pavelchak, and Janet Schofield for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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This is partly because much of the relevant hard data are only now being generated. Hence, this article, of necessity, cites several unpublished papers and convention presentations.


Roughly a quarter of the population view it as very unlikely, a quarter as fairly unlikely, and a quarter as fairly likely; the remainder say it is very likely or express no opinion (The Gallup Poll, 1983).


An image, for these purposes, is a conception, an impression, or an understanding; it is a mental picture, but not necessarily visual. Readers familiar with the concept of a cognitive schema may wish to substitute that term for image. Image is used here to minimize jargon and because of its connotations of something gleaned through public channels such as the media. See Fiske et al. (1983) for a fuller discussion of these issues.


Readers familiar with the social psychological concepts of vividness (e.g., making the abstract concrete) and salience (e.g., bringing the issue into awareness) will note that the most likely relationship of the two concepts here is that increasing the vividness of people's concrete images apparently contributed to the salience of the nuclear war issue; see Fiske and Taylor (1984) for further discussion of these two concepts.


Similarly, worry sometimes predicts antinuclear attitudes (Feshbach, 1982; Hamilton et al., 1985a).

Copyright © 1986 by the National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK219181


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