People's Reactions to Nuclear War: Implications for Psychologists

Susan T. Fiske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


Psychologists have a long history of interest in nuclear war, and recently this interest has peaked. One of psychology's contributions has been to increase our understanding of the average citizen's response to the threat of nuclear war. This article reviews available data that document the modal adult's beliefs, feelings, and actions regarding nuclear war. It examines the discrepancies between people's beliefs about the horrific possibility of nuclear war and their relative lack of affective and behavioral response. The article also reviews data on the possible psychological and social sources of those reactions. Finally, it contrasts the average citizen with the antinuclear activist and with the survivalist. A sense of political efficacy and heightened issue salience appear to distinguish people who are active and potentially to persuade people who are inactive. Many of people's reactions to nuclear war fit the standard findings regarding citizen response to other political issues, so from that perspective the discrepancies between people's horrific beliefs and their lack of affective and behavioral response are not at all surprising. The article closes with comments on the dangers of taking the prescriptive stance that this issue should be different from other political issues; on the risk of false consensus among psychologists who are active in nuclear issues, on possible strategies for psychologists who wish to increase activism; and on a research agenda for continued work by psychologists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-217
Number of pages11
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 1987
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


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