What makes violence political? Existing research argues that experiencing violence generates anger and grievances, which cause political mobilization, retribution, and spirals of escalating violence. I argue that the effect of violence on the political behavior of survivors is highly variable: situation-specific information shapes how survivors of violence experience anger, and whether they attribute blame to individual perpetrators or form more durable, expansive political grievances toward targets like police or prosecutors. I use qualitative and computational methods to analyze transcripts of original interviews with relatives of Black and Latinx homicide victims in Chicago, IL. Results show substantial diversity in emotional experience and blame attribution. I argue that this diversity is caused by variation in clarity about identity and motive of the perpetrator, and variation in perception of perpetrator responsibility. Having or lacking crucial information determines whether survivors become angry at perpetrators or form broader political grievances after traumatic experiences. Evidence from Chicago challenges the notion that violent trauma and anger have automatic or straightforward consequences for political behavior.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Data and replication code are available in the Political Behavior Dataverse (https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/TD6YHR).
I use the term “non-state” only to distinguish from police-perpetrated homicides. However, as Richie (2012) and Perry (2013) argue, it is difficult to characterize violence against racial minorities as decisively non-state given the state’s role in perpetuating conditions that make violence possible.
Respondents were parents, guardians, or siblings of the victim.
I chose not to “oversample” men to correct for this imbalance. Accordingly, the conclusions of this study are more likely valid for women’s behavior than men’s.
I discuss how my identities as a researcher may have influenced this trend in Appendix F.
One standard deviation ranges from “a little” angry to “quite a bit” angry. Average scores for “angry” alone are higher but the difference is not significant.
STM is an improvement that incorporates document-level metadata into the model fit (Roberts et al., 2016).
Topic models ignore semantic structure, so they incorporate vernacular and slang easily. For example, STM associates Chicago Survivors-specific terminology like “homegoing” (funeral) and “angel-day” (death anniversary) with other descriptors of funerals.
The interviews are broken into 2300 paragraphs for model flexibility, but preserve correlation between paragraphs from the same interview via STM’s prevalence covariate functions. Topic correlations are reported at the paragraph level—i.e. ideas discussed together within a paragraph—whereas other associations are reported at the respondent level. The estimations of other associations propagate uncertainty from the model fit, which includes respondent ID as a covariate, into the (conservative) errors.
Topic prevalence should be un-affected by crowding-out, i.e. talking more about one emotion automatically reducing discussion of another. All ten topics happen to be associated with one or more questions in the interview guide, and responses were not time-limited. Talking more about panic, for example, would never lead to “skipping” an opportunity to talk about anger.
Getting the attribution wrong is not an impediment to envisioning punishment (Clore & Gasper, 2000).
Jackson (2019) shows that perception of inter-group threat (racist treatment by the state) in Chicago varies by gender: Men often downplay the threat of racism and women are more likely to express fear and anxiety.
Ms. G accuses the perpetrators of a secondary wrong—what Fujii (2013) calls “extra-lethal” violence. She says that sometimes people “catch a bullet,” but is upset that someone “unloaded” a whole magazine into her son, who was likely not the intended target.
I also interviewed Ms. H and her son Mr. H about the murder of a different son, killed by his girlfriend. Here, both were unequivocally angry at the girlfriend; as the cognitive clarity model predicts. This further suggests that “family” norms are an appropriate alternative explanation for Ms. H’s case.
Chicago violence perhaps had a shared narrative in the past, but the breakdown of cohesive drug gangs since the 1980s has complicated the violence landscape (Stuart, 2020).
Asher, J. (2017). Why are shootings deadlier in some cities than others? FiveThirtyEight.com.
Balcells, L. (2017). Rivalry and revenge: The politics of violence during civil wars. Cambridge University Press.
Banks, A. J., White, I. K., & Mckenzie, B. D. (2019). Black politics: How anger influences the political actions blacks pursue to reduce racial inequality. Political Behavior, 41, 917–943.
Barrett, L. F. (2006). Solving the emotion paradox: categorization and the experience of emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1), 20–46.
Bateson, R. A. (2012). Crime victimization and political participation. American Political Science Review, 106(3), 570–587.
Bell, M. C. (2017). Police reform and the dismantling of legal estrangement. The Yale Law Journal, 2017, 2054–2150.
Blei, D., Ng, A., & Jordan, M. (2003). Latent Dirichlet Allocation. Journal of Machine Learning Research, 3, 993–1022.
Bonanno, G., & Jost, J. (2006). Conservative shift among high-exposure survivors of the september 11th terrorist attacks. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 28(4), 311–323.
Brown, N. E. (2012). Negotiating the insider/outsider status: black feminist ethnography and legislative studies. Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 3(1), 19–34.
Claassen, & Phillips, C. B. (2013). The emotional logic of intergroup violence. Ph.D. Dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis.
Clore, G., & Gasper, K. (2000). Feeling is believing: some active influences on belief. In N. Frijda, A. S. Manstead, & S. Bem (Eds.), Emotions and beliefs: How feelings influence thoughts (pp. 10–45). Cambridge University Press.
Coleman, P. T., Goldman, J. S., & Kugler, K. (2009). Emotional intractability: Gender, anger, aggression and rumination in conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 20(2), 113–131.
Costalli, S., & Ruggeri, A. (2015). Indignation, ideologies, and armed mobilization. International Security, 40(2), 119–157.
Davenport, C. (2005). Understanding covert repressive action: The case of the U.S. government against the republic of new africa. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(1), 120–140.
Fischer, A. H., & Roseman, I. J. (2007). Beat them or ban them: The characteristics and social functions of anger and contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 103–115.
Frijda, N. H. (1994). The lex talionis: on vengeance. In S. van Goozen, N. van de Poll, & J. Sergeant (Eds.), Emotions: Essays on emotion theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence.
Frijda, N. H. (1986). The emotions. Cambridge University Press.
Fujii, L. A. (2013). The puzzle of extra-lethal violence. Perspectives on Politics, 11(2), 410–426.
García-Ponce, O., Young, Y., & Zeitzoff, T. (2019). Anger and support for punitive justice in Mexico’s Drug War. Working paper University of California, Davis.
Goldberg, J., Lerner, J., & Tetlock, P. (1999). Rage and reason: The psychology of the intuitive prosecutor. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(5), 781–795.
Grimmer, J., & Stewart, B. M. (2013). Text as data: The promise and pitfalls of automatic content analysis methods for political texts. Political Analysis, 21(3), 267–297.
Gurr, T. R. (1971). Why men rebel. Princeton University Press.
Halperin, E. (2008). Group-based hatred in intractable conflict in Israel. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(5), 713–736.
Harmon-Jones, E., & Sigelman, J. D. (2001). State anger and prefrontal brain activity: Evidence that insult-related relative left-prefrontal activation is associated with experienced anger and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 797–803.
Hutcherson, C. A., & Gross, J. J. (2011). The moral emotions: A social-functionalist account of anger, disgust, and contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 719–737.
Jackson, J. M. (2019). Gendering threat: Young people’s perceptions of the seriousness of police killings of black Americans. Working paper, Syracuse University.
Javeline, D. (2014). Anger and prejudice after the beslan school hostage taking. Technical Report 327 PONARS Eurasia.
Kapustin, M., Ludwig, J., Punkay, M., Smith, K., Speigel, L., & Welgus, D. (2017). Gun violence in Chicago, 2016. Technical report University of Chicago Crime Lab Chicago.
Lebel, U., & Ronel, N. (2009). The emotional reengineering of loss: On the grief-anger-social action continuum. Political Psychology, 30(5), 669–691.
Lerner, J. S., Gonzalez, R. M., Small, D. A., & Fischhoff, B. (2003). Effects of fear and anger on perceived risks of terrorism: A national field experiment. Psychological Science, 14(2), 144–150.
Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 473–493.
Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 146–159.
Lerner, J. S., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape Anger’s influence on cognition. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19(2), 115–137.
McDermott, R., Lopez, A., & Hatemi, P. (2017). Blunt not the heart, Enrage It: The psychology of revenge and deterrence. Texas National Security Review, 1(1), 69–88.
Nielsen, R. A. (2017). Deadly clerics: Blocked ambition and the paths to Jihad. Cambridge University Press.
Nussio, E. (2020). Attitudinal and emotional consequences of islamist terrorism. Evidence from the Berlin Attack. Political Psychology.
Papachristos, A. V., & Wildeman, C. (2014). Network exposure and homicide victimization in an african american community. American Journal of Public Health, 104(1), 143–150.
Pearlman, W. (2016). Narratives of fear in Syria. Perspectives on Politics, 14(1), 21–37.
Perry, K.-K. (2013). Black women against the land grab: The fight for racial justice in Brazil. University of Minnesota Press.
Petersen, R. D., & Daly, S. Z. (2010). Anger, violence, and political science. In M. Potegal (Ed.), International handbook of anger (pp. 561–581). Springer.
Phoenix, D. L. (2019). The anger gap: How race shapes emotion in politics. Cambridge University Press.
Phoenix, D. L., & Arora, M. (2018). From emotion to action among asian americans: Assessing the roles of threat and identity in the age of trump. Politics, Groups and Identities, 6(3), 357–372.
Prowse, G., Weaver, V. M., & Meares, T. (2020). The state from below: Distorted responsiveness in policed communities. Urban Affairs Review, 56(5), 1423–1471.
Richie, B. E. (2012). Arrested justice: Black women, violence, and america’s prison nation. New York University Press.
Roberts, M. E., Stewart, B. M., & Tingley, D. (2018). stm: R package for structural topic models. Journal of Statistical Software.
Roberts, M. E., Stewart, B. M., & Airoldi, E. M. (2016). A model of text for experimentation in the social sciences. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 111(515), 988–1003.
Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press.
Smith, C. A. (2016). Facing the dragon: Black mothering, sequelae, and gendered necropolitics in the Americas. Transforming Anthropology, 24(1), 31–48.
Stuart, F. (2020). Ballad of the bullet: Gangs, drill music, and the power of online infamy. Princeton University Press.
Suhay, E., & Erisen, C. (2018). The role of anger in the biased assimilation of political information. Political Psychology, 39(4), 793–809.
Sweeney, A. & Buckley, M. (2019). Chicago police gang data collection faulted by city’s inspector general as unchecked and unreliable. The Chicago Tribune.
Threadcraft, S. (2016). Intimate justice: The black female body and the body politic. Oxford University Press.
Tripp, T. M., & Bies R. J. (1997). What’s good about revenge? The avenger’s perspective. In R. J. Lewicki, & R. J. Bies (Eds.) Research on Negotiation in Organizations. New York: JAI Press.
Vagg, P. R. & Spielberger, C. D. (1979). State-trait anger expression inventory interpretive report (STAXI-2: IR). Technical report Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.
Valentino, N. A., Brader, T., Groenendyk, E. W., Gregorowicz, K., & Hutchings, V. L. (2011). Election night’s alright for fighting: The role of emotions in political participation. Journal of Politics, 73(1), 156–170.
Vasilopoulos, P., Marcus, G. E., Valentino, N. A., & Foucault, M. (2018). Fear, anger, and voting for the far right: Evidence from the november 13, 2015 paris terror attacks. Political Psychology, 40(4), 679–704.
Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of positive and negative affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1063.
Weaver, V., Prowse, G., & Piston, S. (2020). Withdrawing and drawing in: Political discourse in policed communities. The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, 5(3), 604–647.
Webster, S. W. (2017). Anger and declining trust in government in the american electorate. Political Behavior, 40(4), 933–964.
Wilkowski, B. M., Robinson, M. D., Gordon, R. D., & Troop-Gordon, W. (2007). Tracking the evil eye: Trait anger and selective attention within ambiguously hostile scenes. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(3), 650–666.
Wood, E. J. (2006). The ethical challenges of field research in conflict zones. Qualitative Sociology, 29, 373–386.
Young, L. (2016). Preying on the poor: The impact of repressive violence on citizen behavior. Working paper University of California, Davis.
Zeitzoff, T. (2014). Anger, exposure to violence and intragroup conflict: A lab in the field experiment in Southern Israel. Political Psychology, 35(3), 309–335.
Thank you to Fotini Christia, Stefano Costalli, Andy Halterman, Marika Landau-Wells, Rich Nielsen, Roger Petersen, Blair Read, Lily Tsai, Ariel White, and participants in the 2018 MIT Second Year Paper Workshop, MIT IR Works in Progress, the Harvard Working Group on Political Psychology, and MPSA 2019 for comments on prior drafts. Three anonymous reviewers and the editors of Political Behavior also provided valuable comments that have greatly improved this article. Ariel White provided excellent advice on interviewing survivors of trauma. JaShawn Hill, Susan Johnson, and other staff of Chicago Survivors not only made the interviews possible, but also provided extensive advice and logistical support. Steve Edwards provided valuable early advice on working in Chicago. Thanks finally to Sam Neal for tolerating me as a houseguest for the entirety of my time in Chicago. Data collection was approved by the MIT Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects under protocol #1707023191.
Conflict of interest
The author declares no conflict of interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Milliff, A. Facts Shape Feelings: Information, Emotions, and the Political Consequences of Violence. Polit Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-021-09755-1
- United States