Political Behavior

, Volume 40, Issue 4, pp 989–1009 | Cite as

Threat Perception and American Support for Torture

  • Courtenay R. Conrad
  • Sarah E. Croco
  • Brad T. Gomez
  • Will H. Moore
Original Paper


When do Americans support the government’s use of torture? We argue that perceptions of threat undermine the extent to which American public opinion serves as a bulwark against government torture. Although surveys demonstrate that a slim majority of the American public generally opposes torture, using a nationally-representative survey experiment, we show that Americans are considerably more supportive of government abuse when it is directed at individuals who they perceive as threatening: specifically, when a detainee has an Arabic name and when the alleged crime is terrorism. Given the malleability of public opinion as a potential constraint on abuse, our results underscore the importance of institutional protections of human rights.


Torture Public opinion Human rights Survey experiment 



This work was partially supported by the Center for the Study of Democratic Performance and the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. We are grateful to Ana Bracic, Scott Clifford, Daniel Corstange, Darren Davis, Chris Fariss, Paul Gronke, Brandon Merrill, Kristy Pathakis, Dave Siegel, Geoffrey Wallace, Thomas Zeitzoff, audiences at the 2014 and 2016 International Studies Association Annual Meetings, and colloquia at Peace Research Institute Oslo, Arizona State University, the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Denver for useful feedback. We also thank Dennis Langley of Florida State University for his research assistance. Unfortunately, during the final stages of our work on this paper, our friend and coauthor, Will Moore, passed away. He was a remarkable colleague, mentor, and scholar; he will be greatly missed.

Supplementary material

11109_2017_9433_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (41 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (pdf 41 KB)


  1. Altheide, D. L. (2006). The mass media, crime and terrorism. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 4(5), 982–997.Google Scholar
  2. Amnesty International. (2014). Stop torture global survey: Attitudes to torture. London.
  3. Anderson, C. J., Paskeviciute, A., Sandovici, M. E., & Tverdova, Y. V. (2005). In the eye of the beholder? The foundations of subjective human rights conditions in East-Central Europe. Comparative Political Studies, 38(7), 771–798.Google Scholar
  4. Anderson, C. J., Regan, P. M., & Ostergard, R. L. (2002). Political repression and public perceptions of human rights. Political Research Quarterly, 55(2), 439–456.Google Scholar
  5. Andrews, K. T., & Seguin, C. (2015). Group threat and policy change: The spatial dynamics of prohibition politics, 1890–1919. American Journal of Sociology, 121(2), 475–510.Google Scholar
  6. Bartels, L. M. (2009). Unequal democracy: The political economy of the new gilded age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Berrebi, C., & Klor, E. F. (2008). Are voters sensitive to terrorism? Direct evidence from the Israeli electorate. American Political Science Review, 102(03), 279–301.Google Scholar
  8. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American Economic Review, 94(4), 991–1013.Google Scholar
  9. Blakeley, R. (2007). Why torture? Review of International Studies, 33(03), 373–394.Google Scholar
  10. Bobo, L. D. (1999). Prejudice as group position: Microfoundations of a sociological approach to racism and race relations. Journal of Social Issues, 55(3), 445–472.Google Scholar
  11. Brambor, T., Clark, W. R., & Golder, M. (2005). Understanding interaction models: Improving empirical analyses. Political Analysis, 14(1), 63–82.Google Scholar
  12. Branton, R., Cassese, E. C., Jones, B. S., & Westerland, C. (2011). All along the watchtower: Acculturation fear, anti-Latino affect, and immigration. Journal of Politics, 73(3), 664–679.Google Scholar
  13. Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love and outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55(3), 429–444.Google Scholar
  14. Brewer, M. B. (2001). The many faces of social identity: Implications for political psychology. Political Psychology, 22(1), 115–125.Google Scholar
  15. Butler, D. M., & Broockman, D. E. (2011). Do politicians racially discriminate against constituents? A field experiment on state legislators. American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), 463–477.Google Scholar
  16. Carlsmith, K. M., & Sood, A. M. (2009). The fine line between interrogation and retribution. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(1), 191–196.Google Scholar
  17. Carlson, M., & Listhaug, O. (2007). Citizens’ perceptions of human rights practices: An analysis of 55 countries. Journal of Peace Research, 44(4), 465–483.Google Scholar
  18. Carpusor, A. G., & Loges, W. E. (2006). Rental discrimination and ethnicity in names. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(4), 934–952.Google Scholar
  19. Cingranelli, D. L., & Filippov, M. (2010). Electoral rules and incentives to protect human rights. Journal of Politics, 72(1), 243–257.Google Scholar
  20. Conrad, C. R., Conrad, J., Walsh, J. I., & Piazza, J. A. (2016). Who tortures the terrorists? Transnational terrorism and military torture. Foreign Policy Analysis. doi: 10.1111/fpa.12066.
  21. Conrad, C. R., & Moore, W. H. (2010). What stops the torture? American Journal of Political Science, 54(2), 459–476.Google Scholar
  22. Davenport, C. (1996). Constitutional promises’ and repressive reality: A cross-national time-series investigation of why political and civil liberties are suppressed. Journal of Politics, 58(3), 627–654.Google Scholar
  23. Davenport, C. (2007). State repression and the domestic democratic peace. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Davenport, C., Soule, S. A., & Armstrong, D. A. (2011). Protesting while black? The differential policing of American activism, 1960–1990. American Sociological Review, 76(1), 152–178.Google Scholar
  25. Davis, D. W. (2007). Negative liberty: Public opinion and the terrorist attacks on America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  26. Donnelly, J. (2003). Universal human rights in theory and practice (2nd ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Downes, A. B. (2011). Targeting civilians in war. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Drake, B. (2014). Americans’ views on use of torture in fighting terrorism have been mixed. Washington, DC: Pew Fact Tank.Google Scholar
  29. Duckitt, J., & Mphuthing, T. (1998). Group identification and intergroup attitudes: A longitudinal analysis in South Africa. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 80–85.Google Scholar
  30. Eberhardt, J. L., Davies, P. G., Purdie-Vaughns, V. J., & Johnson, S. L. (2006). Looking deathworthy: Perceived stereotypicality of Black defendants predicts capital-sentencing outcomes. Psychological Science, 17(5), 383–386.Google Scholar
  31. Fair, C. C., Malhotra, N., & Shapiro, J. N. (2010). Islam, militancy, and politics in Pakistan: Insights from a national sample. Terrorism and Political Violence, 22(4), 495–521.Google Scholar
  32. Farley, J. E. (1987). Disproportionate Black and Hispanic unemployment in US metropolitan areas: The Roles of racial inequality, segregation and discrimination in male joblessness. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 46(2), 129–150.Google Scholar
  33. Fiske, S. T., Harris, L. T., & Cuddy, A. J. C. (2004). Why ordinary people torture enemy prisoners. Science, 306(5701), 1482–1483.Google Scholar
  34. Galanter, M., & Luban, D. (1992). Poetic justice: Punitive damages and legal pluralism. American University Law Review, 42, 1393–1463.Google Scholar
  35. Gerges, F. A. (2003). Islam and Muslims in the mind of America. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 588(1), 73–89.Google Scholar
  36. Getmansky, A., & Zeitzoff, T. (2014). Terrorism and voting: The effect of rocket threat on voting in Israeli elections. American Political Science Review, 108(03), 588–604.Google Scholar
  37. Gibson, J. L. (2008). Intolerance and political repression in the United States: A half century after McCarthyism. American Journal of Political Science, 52(1), 96–108.Google Scholar
  38. Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(03), 564–581.Google Scholar
  39. Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: Implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 292.Google Scholar
  40. Goldsmith, J. (2007). The terror presidency: Law and judgment inside the Bush administration. NewYork: WW Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  41. Gould, E. D., & Klor, E. F. (2010). Does terrorism work? The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 125(4), 1459–1510.Google Scholar
  42. Gronke, P., Rejali, D., Drenguis, D., Hicks, J., Miller, P., & Nakayama, B. (2010). U.S. public opinion on torture, 2001–2009. PS. Political Science and Politics, 43(3), 437–444.Google Scholar
  43. Gronke, P., Rejali, D. & Miller, P. (2014). No, Americans aren’t ‘Fine with Torture.’ They strongly reject it. Washington, DC. Retrieved December 11, 2014 from
  44. Haider-Markel, D. P., & Vieux, A. (2008). Gender and conditional support for torture in the war on terror. Politics & Gender, 4(1), 5–33.Google Scholar
  45. Hainmueller, J., & Hiscox, M. J. (2010). Attitudes toward highly skilled and low-skilled immigration: Evidence from a survey experiment. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 61–84.Google Scholar
  46. Hainmueller, J., & Hopkins, D. J. (2015). The hidden American immigration consensus: A conjoint analysis of attitudes toward immigrants. American Journal of Political Science, 59(3), 529–548.Google Scholar
  47. Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2011). Dehumanized perception: A psychological means to facilitate atrocities, torture, and genocide? Journal of Psychology, 219(3), 175–192.Google Scholar
  48. Hendrix, C. S., & Wong, W. H. (2013). When is the pen truly mighty? Regime type and the efficacy of naming and shaming in curbing human rights abuses. British Journal of Political Science, 43(3), 651–672.Google Scholar
  49. Hetherington, M., & Suhay, E. (2011). Authoritarianism, threat, and Americans’ support for the war on terror. American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), 546–560.Google Scholar
  50. Hodson, G., Dovidio, J. F., & Esses, V. M. (2003). Ingroup identification as a moderator of positive-negative asymmetry in social discrimination. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33(2), 215–233.Google Scholar
  51. Hogg, M. A., & Abrams, D. (1993). Towards a single-process uncertainty-reduction model of social motivation in groups. In A. Michael (Ed.), Group motivation: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 173–190). Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Google Scholar
  52. Hooks, G., & Mosher, C. (2005). Outrages against personal dignity: Rationalizing abuse and torture in the war on terror. Social Forces, 83(4), 1627–1645.Google Scholar
  53. Huber, J. D., & Bingham Powell, G. (1994). Congruence between citizens and policymakers in two visions of liberal democracy. World Politics, 46(3), 291–326.Google Scholar
  54. Huddy, L., Feldman, S., Taber, C., & Lahav, G. (2005). Threat, anxiety, and support of antiterrorism policies. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 593–608.Google Scholar
  55. Johnson, S. D. (1992). Anti-Arabic prejudice in ‘Middletown.’ Psychological Reports, 70(3), 811–818.Google Scholar
  56. Kahn, P. W. (2008). Sacred violence: Torture, terror, and sovereignty. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  57. Kam, C. D., & Kinder, D. R. (2007). Terror and ethnocentrism: Foundations of American support for the war on terrorism. Journal of Politics, 69(2), 320–338.Google Scholar
  58. Kearns, E. M. & Joseph, K. Y. (2014). If torture is wrong, what about 24?: Torture and the Hollywood effect. American University School of Public Affairs Research Paper No. 2014-0001.
  59. Keith, L. C. (2002). Constitutional provisions for individual human rights: Are they more than mere window dressing. Political Research Quarterly, 55(1), 111–143.Google Scholar
  60. Keith, L. C. (2011). Political repression: Courts and the law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  61. Khan, S. A. (2012). Sharia Law, Islamophobia and the US constitution: New tectonic plates of the culture wars. University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class, 12(1), 123–139.Google Scholar
  62. Kibris, A. (2011). Funerals and elections: The effects of terrorism on voting behavior in Turkey. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 55(2), 220–247.Google Scholar
  63. Kinder, D. R., & Sears, D. O. (1981). Prejudice and politics: Symbolic racism versus racial threats to the good life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(3), 414–431.Google Scholar
  64. King, R. D., Messner, S. F., & Baller, R. D. (2009). Contemporary hate crimes, Law enforcement, and the legacy of racial violence. American Sociological Review, 74(2), 291–315.Google Scholar
  65. Lahav, G. (2004). Public opinion toward immigration in the European Union: Does it matter? Comparative Political Studies, 37(10), 1151–1183.Google Scholar
  66. Landman, T. (2005). Protecting human rights: A comparative study. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Luban, D. (2005). Liberalism and the unpleasant question of torture. Virginia Law Review, 91(6), 1425–1461.Google Scholar
  68. Malhotra, N., & Popp, E. (2012). Bridging partisan divisions over antiterrorism policies: The role of threat perception. Political Research Quarterly, 65(1), 34–47.Google Scholar
  69. Malka, A., & Soto, C. J. (2011). The conflicting influences of religiosity on attitude toward torture. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(8), 1091–1103.Google Scholar
  70. Marcus, G. E. (1995). With malice toward some: How people make civil liberties judgments. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  71. Mayer, J. D., & Armor, D. J. (2012). Support for torture over time: Interrogating the American public about coercive tactics. The Social Science Journal, 49(4), 439–446.Google Scholar
  72. Mayer, J. D., Koizumi, N., & Malik, A. A. (2014). Does terror cause torture? A comparative study of international public opinion about governmental use of coercion. In T. Lightcap & J. P. Pfiffner (Eds.), Examining torture: Empirical studies of state repression (pp. 43–62). London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  73. McCarthy, A. C. (2006). Torture: Thinking about the unthinkable. In K. Greenberg (Ed.), The torture debate in America (pp. 98–110). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  74. McCoy, A. W. (2006). A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the war on terror. New York: Holt.Google Scholar
  75. Merolla, J. L., & Zechmeister, E. J. (2009). Democracy at risk: How terrorist threats affect the public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  76. Milkman, K. L., Akinola, M., & Chugh, D. (2015). What happens before? A field experiment exploring how pay and representation differentially shape bias on the pathway into organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.Google Scholar
  77. Miller, P. (2011). Torture approval in comparative perspective. Human Rights Review, 12(4), 441–463.Google Scholar
  78. Miller, P., Gronke, P., & Rejali, D. (2014). Torture and public opinion: The partisan dimension. In T. Lightcap & J. P. Pfiffner (Eds.), Examining torture: Empirical studies of state repression (pp. 11–41). London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  79. Mondak, J. J., & Hurwitz, J. (2012). Examining the terror exception terrorism and commitments to civil liberties. Public Opinion Quarterly, 76(2), 193–213.Google Scholar
  80. Nacos, B. L., & Torres-Reyna, O. (2007). Fueling our fears: Stereotyping, media coverage, and public opinion of Muslim Americans. London: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  81. Norris, P., Montague, K., & Marion, R. J. (2003). Framing terrorism: The news media, the government, and the public. London: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  82. Oliver, E. J., & Wong, J. (2003). Intergroup prejudice in multiethnic settings. American Journal of Political Science, 47(4), 567–582.Google Scholar
  83. Owens, P. B., Cunningham, D., & Ward, G. (2015). Threat, competition, and mobilizing structures: Motivational and organizational contingencies of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan. Social Problems, 62(4), 572–604.Google Scholar
  84. Pager, D., Western, B., & Bonikowski, B. (2009). Discrimination in a low-wage labor market: A field experiment. American Sociological Review, 74(5), 777–799.Google Scholar
  85. Piazza, J. A. (2015). Terrorist suspect religious identity and public support for harsh interrogation and detention practices. Political Psychology, 36(6), 667–690.Google Scholar
  86. Plümper, T., & Neumayer, E. (2009). Famine mortality, rational political inactivity, and international food aid. World Development, 37(1), 50–61.Google Scholar
  87. Poe, S., & Neal Tate, C. (1994). Repression of personal integrity rights in the 1980’s: A global analysis. American Political Science Review, 88, 853–872.Google Scholar
  88. Powell, E. J., & Staton, J. K. (2009). Domestic judicial institutions and human rights treaty violation. International Studies Quarterly, 53(1), 149–174.Google Scholar
  89. Przeworski, A., Stokes, S. C., & Manin, B. (1999). Democracy, accountability, and representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Quillian, L. (1995). Prejudice as a response to perceived group threat: Population composition and anti-immigrant and racial prejudice in Europe. American Sociological Review. doi: 10.2307/2096296.Google Scholar
  91. Rejali, D. (2007). Torture and democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Richards, D. L. (1999). Perilous proxy: Human rights and the presence of national elections. Social Science Quarterly, 80(4), 648–668.Google Scholar
  93. Richards, D., Morrill, M., & Anderson, M. (2012). Some psycho-social correlates of U.S. citizen support for torture. Nordic Journal of Human Rights, 30(1), 63–95.Google Scholar
  94. Ron, J. (1997). Varying methods of state violence. International Organization, 51(2), 275–300.Google Scholar
  95. Shamir, M., & Sagiv-Schifter, T. (2006). Conflict, identity, and tolerance: Israel in the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Political Psychology, 27(4), 569–595.Google Scholar
  96. Shane, S. (2014). Backing C.I.A., Cheney revisits torture debate from Bush era. New York Times.Google Scholar
  97. Sherif, M. (1966). In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  98. Slade, S. (1981). The image of the Arab in America: Analysis of a poll on American attitudes. The Middle East Journal, 35, 143–162.Google Scholar
  99. Sniderman, P. M. (1975). Personality and democratic politics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  100. Sniderman, P. M., & Aloysius, H. (2007). When ways of life collide: Multiculturalism and its discontents in the Netherlands. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  101. Stahl, L. (2012). Hard measures: Ex CIA head defends Post 9–11 tactics. CBS 60 Minutes .
  102. Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (1985). Intergroup anxiety. Journal of Social Issues, 41(3), 157–175.Google Scholar
  103. Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (1996). Predicting prejudice. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20(3), 409–426.Google Scholar
  104. Stephan, W. G., & Stephan, C. W. (2000). An integrated threat theory of prejudice. In S. Oskamp (Ed.), Reducing prejudice and discrimination (pp. 23–45). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  105. Stouffer, S. A. (1955). Communism, conformity, and civil liberties: A cross-section of the nation speaks its mind. New York: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  106. Sullivan, J. L., Piereson, J., & Marcus, G. E. (1982). Political tolerance and American democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  107. Sullivan, J. L., Shamir, M., Walsh, P., & Roberts, N. S. (1985). Political tolerance in context: Support for unpopular minorities in Israel, New Zealand, and the United States. Boulder, NV: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  108. Tajfel, H. (1981). Human groups and social categories: Studies in social psychology. Cambridge, MA: CUP Archive.Google Scholar
  109. Tajfel, H. (1982). Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33(1), 1–39.Google Scholar
  110. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149–178.Google Scholar
  111. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 34–47). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  112. Taylor, M. C. (1998). How white attitudes vary with the racial composition of local populations: Numbers count. American Sociological Review, 63(4), 512–535.Google Scholar
  113. Tilly, C. (2004). Terror, terrorism, terrorists. Sociological Theory, 22(1), 5–13.Google Scholar
  114. Truman, J. S. (2003). Communicating terror: The rhetorical dimensions of terrorism. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  115. United Nations. (1984). Convention against torture. New York: United Nations Treaty Collection.Google Scholar
  116. Vavreck, L., & Rivers, D. (2008). The 2006 cooperative congressional election study. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 18(4), 355–366.Google Scholar
  117. Viki, G. T., Osgood, D., & Phillips, S. (2013). Dehumanization and self-reported proclivity to torture prisoners of war. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 325–328.Google Scholar
  118. Wallace, G. P. R. (2013). International law and public attitudes toward torture: An experimental study. International Organization, 67(01), 105–140.Google Scholar
  119. Wallace, G. P. R. (2014). Martial law? Military experience, international law, and support for torture. International Studies Quarterly, 58(3), 501–514.Google Scholar
  120. Walzer, M. (1973). Political action: The problem of dirty hands. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2(2), 160–180.Google Scholar
  121. Wemlinger, E. (2014). The gender gap and torture: Opposition to torture among men and women in the USA. Social Science Journal, 51(1), 113–119.Google Scholar
  122. Wilkinson, P. (2001). Terrorism versus democracy: The liberal state response. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Courtenay R. Conrad
    • 1
  • Sarah E. Croco
    • 2
  • Brad T. Gomez
    • 3
  • Will H. Moore
    • 4
  1. 1.University of CaliforniaMercedUSA
  2. 2.University of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  3. 3.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA
  4. 4.Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Personalised recommendations