Project in the spotlight: Perceived Risk of Terrorism

Perceived Risk of Terrorism and its Implications for (Counter-Terrorism) Communication Strategies

This study is the result of an LDE funded research project, conducted by Elena Kantorowicz-Reznichenko (EUR), Gerdien de Vries (TUD) and Jaroslaw Kantorowicz (LU). In light of the increasing concern over terrorism in Europe, governments are facing a challenge of developing counter-terrorism measures and at the same time managing public fear. Both tasks depend not only on the actual risk of terrorism but on the way people perceive such risk. The underlying goal of terrorism is the psychological influence on people’s perception and creation of fear. If people overestimate the risk of a terroristic attack to take place in their country, they might pressure the government to overinvest in prevention measures, even if it is inefficient. Furthermore, the actions taken by public authorities to counter terrorism might be viewed as insufficient. Therefore, it is important to understand whether there is a perception gap between the actual terrorism threat (which is unknown) and the perceived risk. Understanding the psychological mechanisms behind the evaluation of terrorism threat may assist public authorities to develop effective communications strategies when they convey information to the public about terrorism risk and the measures they are implementing to reduce it.

In this project, we adopt an empirical approach (population-based survey experiments) to understand the relevant psychological biases that may potentially increase the perceived probability of a terroristic attack. So far, we have identified a number of potential biases and we are currently designing several experiments in order to test their existence and their potential role in creating a perception gap. The next step is to run the experiments in the Netherlands and then in the UK. Those two countries were selected since they represent different experience with recent terroristic attacks (several attacks in the UK, and no recent attacks in the Netherlands).

The experimental results will serve as a basis for theoretical development of communication strategies. Once the psychological mechanisms behind overestimation of terrorism risk (given that they indeed exist) are understood, it is possible to develop methods to address the biases. For example, public authorities can use different strategies to “debias” the public, thus minimizing the perception gap. Public authorities can potentially also utilize psychological biases to reduce the perceived risk. This will be the last part of the project, and will provide policy recommendations, which can be empirically tested in future projects. 


Dr. Elena Kantorowicz-Reznichenko (Rotterdam Institute of Law and Economics (RILE) | Erasmus School of Law | Erasmus University Rotterdam).
Dr. Gerdien de Vries (Section Organisation & Governance | Department of Multi-Actor Systems | Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management | Delft University of Technology).
Dr. Jaroslaw Kantorowicz (Research Group on Diplomacy and Global Affairs | Institute of Security and Global Affairs | Leiden University).