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A policy maker's dilemma: Preventing terrorism or preventing blame


  • McGraw, A. Peter
  • Todorov, Alexander
  • Kunreuther, Howard


Although anti-terrorism policy should be based on a normative treatment of risk that incorporates likelihoods of attack, policy makers' anti-terror decisions may be influenced by the blame they expect from failing to prevent attacks. We show that people's anti-terror budget priorities before a perceived attack and blame judgments after a perceived attack are associated with the attack's severity and how upsetting it is but largely independent of its likelihood. We also show that anti-terror budget priorities are influenced by directly highlighting the likelihood of the attack, but because of outcome biases, highlighting the attack's prior likelihood has no influence on judgments of blame, severity, or emotion after an attack is perceived to have occurred. Thus, because of accountability effects, we propose policy makers face a dilemma: prevent terrorism using normative methods that incorporate the likelihood of attack or prevent blame by preventing terrorist attacks the public find most blameworthy.

Suggested Citation

  • McGraw, A. Peter & Todorov, Alexander & Kunreuther, Howard, 2011. "A policy maker's dilemma: Preventing terrorism or preventing blame," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 115(1), pages 25-34, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jobhdp:v:115:y:2011:i:1:p:25-34

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Kahneman, Daniel & Ritov, Ilana & Schkade, David A, 1999. "Economic Preferences or Attitude Expressions?: An Analysis of Dollar Responses to Public Issues," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 19(1-3), pages 203-235, December.
    2. Kunreuther, Howard & Novemsky, Nathan & Kahneman, Daniel, 2001. "Making Low Probabilities Useful," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 23(2), pages 103-120, September.
    3. repec:cup:apsrev:v:74:y:1980:i:04:p:905-916_16 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Keohane, Nathaniel O & Zeckhauser, Richard J, 2003. "The Ecology of Terror Defense," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 26(2-3), pages 201-229, March-May.
    5. Hogarth, Robin M & Kunreuther, Howard, 1995. "Decision Making under Ignorance: Arguing with Yourself," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 10(1), pages 15-36, January.
    6. Sniderman, Paul M. & Hagen, Michael G. & Tetlock, Philip E. & Brady, Henry E., 1986. "Reasoning Chains: Causal Models of Policy Reasoning in Mass Publics," British Journal of Political Science, Cambridge University Press, vol. 16(04), pages 405-430, October.
    7. Weaver, R. Kent, 1986. "The Politics of Blame Avoidance," Journal of Public Policy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 6(04), pages 371-398, October.
    8. A. Peter McGraw & Eldar Shafir & Alexander Todorov, 2010. "Valuing Money and Things: Why a $20 Item Can Be Worth More and Less Than $20," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 56(5), pages 816-830, May.
    9. Johnson, Eric J & Hershey, John & Meszaros, Jacqueline & Kunreuther, Howard, 1993. "Framing, Probability Distortions, and Insurance Decisions," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 7(1), pages 35-51, August.
    10. Sunstein, Cass R, 2003. "Terrorism and Probability Neglect," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 26(2-3), pages 121-136, March-May.
    11. repec:cup:apsrev:v:85:y:1991:i:04:p:1133-1157_18 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Sandler, Todd & Lapan, Harvey E., 1988. "The Calculus of Dissent: An Analysis of Terrorists' Choice of Targets," Staff General Research Papers Archive 10818, Iowa State University, Department of Economics.
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    Cited by:

    1. Huber, Michaela & Van Boven, Leaf & McGraw, A. Peter & Johnson-Graham, Laura, 2011. "Whom to help? Immediacy bias in judgments and decisions about humanitarian aid," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 115(2), pages 283-293, July.


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