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When Can Politicians Scare Citizens Into Supporting Bad Policies?


  • We thank seminar participants in the University of Michigan's Department of Psychology's Decision Consortium and its Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. We are also appreciative of comments received at the Hendricks Symposium at the University of Nebraska and seminars at Florida State University, Michigan State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of California-San Diego, and the University of Kentucky for helpful comments. We are also grateful for advice we have received from many scholars including Robert Axelrod, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, John Bullock, Cassandra Grafstrom, Kenneth Kollman, Yanna Krupnikov, Adam Seth Levine, Kenyatha Vauthier Loftis, George Marcus, Rose McDermott, Erin McGovern, William McMillan, Robert Mickey, Manus Midlarsky, Spencer Piston, Rob Salmond, Jeff Staton, Alexander Von Hagen-Jamar, Rick Wilson, and Richard Zeckhauser.

Arthur Lupia is the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science, Research Professor at the Institute for Social Research, and Principal Investigator of the American National Election Studies, University of Michigan, 4252 Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson Street, Ann Arbor, MI (

Jesse O. Menning received a Master's Degree (and is currently an information technology consultant) from the University of Michigan, Department of Political Science, 4252 Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson Street, Ann Arbor, MI (


Many people claim that politicians use fear to manipulate citizens. Using a model, we examine how select attributes of fear affect a politician's ability to scare citizens into supporting policies that they would otherwise reject. In the model, the politician can alert citizens to the presence of a threat. But his claim need not be true. How citizens respond to this claim differs from most game-theoretic models. Our representation of this response follows from research in psychology, has distinct conscious and subconscious components, and does not presume efficient processing (i.e., Bayesian updating). Our conclusions counter popular claims about when politicians will use fear to manipulate citizens. They also highlight issues (abstract, distant) and leaders (secretive) for which recent empirical findings about how fear affects politics will—and will not—generalize to other cases.