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Will you still trust me tomorrow? The causal effect of terrorism on social trust

Abstract

How do people respond to terrorist events? Exploiting the timing of the 2010 wave of the annual ‘Society Opinion Media’ survey in Sweden, we study the causal effect of the Stockholm bombings of 11 December 2010 on Swedish public opinion. Our main contribution is that we draw explicit attention to the link between terrorist events and individuals’ social trust. While we identify a strong effect on individuals’ concern over terrorism, any observed effects with respect to generalised and neighbourhood trust appear to be short-lived—suggesting that isolated terror events have only limited, transitory effects on established social attitudes.

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Notes

  1. For a review of, and critical contribution to, this literature, see Mondak and Hurwitz (2012).

  2. Consistent with this line of argument, Berrebi and Yonah (2016) report a statistically significant and substantively meaningful positive effect of terrorism on philanthropy.

  3. The Stockholm terrorist attack of 11 December 2010 was of limited scale. Around 5 pm, two bombs were detonated in the center of Stockholm: one in a car alongside bottles of liquefied petroleum gas, and the other strapped to the body of the culprit. In the event, the bomber—an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen—was killed and two others were injured. Although the death toll was small, the Stockholm bombings widely were considered to be the first attack linked to Islamic terrorism in the Nordic countries. It also was claimed as such by the perpetrator in an email to the Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå 12 min before the event. Consequently, it triggered substantial political, media and public debate.

  4. Sørensen (2016) argues similarly that a sudden large-scale influx of immigrants may lead to anti-immigrant anxiety within the native population, whereby people worry that immigrants pose threats to their ways of life. Empirical evidence from Norway appears to substantiate this proposition, although the effect is found to be short-lived and arises only in the initial phases of a migration shock.

  5. A substantial literature also highlights the effects of terrorist activity on institutional trust (e.g., Chanley 2002; Sinclair and LoCicero 2010; Arvanitidis et al. 2016).

  6. No surveys were returned around the New Year holiday break, which sets the maximum number of days after the event at 19. Note also that the density of observations around the event is balanced in the immediate vicinity before/after the event.

  7. Unfortunately, we have no information about the extent of media coverage of the terrorist event in the locations of our respondents (nor their consumption of such news coverage). As media coverage may affect individual concerns and responses to a terrorist attack, this constitutes an important avenue for further research.

  8. Coefficients for the control variables are not shown in Table 2 to preserve space. See Table 5 in the Appendix for these coefficients.

  9. This is unsurprising since the treatment is balanced on respondents’ background characteristics (see above). Yet, as their inclusion leads to slightly more precise estimates, we retain them throughout the remainder of the analysis.

  10. The same also holds only individuals responding in December are included (in which case Days ranges from −10 to +19). As a methodological alternative, we also considered ‘non-parametric’ RD-techniques to identify the optimal size of the window. However, those methods need many observations (Lee and Lemieux 2009), and thus were unfeasible given our sample size.

  11. We also experimented with a mediation analysis whereby we included respondents’ concern about terrorism as a control variable in the models presented in Table 3. This strongly mitigates the effect of terrorism on trust, and suggests that terror concerns do indeed mediate the terrorism-trust relation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the editor, three anonymous referees, Gianmarco Daniele, Jon Fiva, Joshua Holm, Paul Huth and Zuzana Murdoch for helpful comments and suggestions. The first author gratefully acknowledges FWO Vlaanderen (Grant No. G.0022.12) for financial support. This article was conceived while the second author was visiting Norwegian Business School BI, and he is grateful for their hospitality, and to the E.On Ruhrgas Stipend programme of the Research Council of Norway for financial support.

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Correspondence to Benny Geys.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 4, 5 and Fig. 1

Table 4 Summary statistics for the main sample
Table 5 Effect on respondents’ concern about terrorism (extended table including controls)
Fig. 1
figure 1

Graphical representation of effect on trust variables. Dependent variable is the level of trust in people in general (left panel) and one’s neighbours (right panel). In both panels, we analyse 11 December 2010 as the event date and an event window of nineteen days before/after the Stockholm bombings (excluding observations from 13−14 December due to uncertainty regarding the moment of these surveys’ completion). Using a quadratic local control functions provides similar inferences than the local linear control function shown here

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Geys, B., Qari, S. Will you still trust me tomorrow? The causal effect of terrorism on social trust. Public Choice 173, 289–305 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-017-0477-1

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Keywords

  • Terrorism
  • Public opinion
  • Trust
  • Threat