The Cognitive Consequences of Political Violence

President's Global Innovation Fund

How does fear shape political behavior and decision-making? Research suggests that stressors, such as poverty, impair cognition and bias decision-making. Psychological studies suggests that fear could have similar effects.

Citizens, police, and legislators have to make decisions under a variety of emotions. If fear distorts cognition or decision-making, then in the wake of acts such as terrorism or crime, poor decisions may result.

Principal Investigator

Christopher J.  Blattman
Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs and of Political Science

We propose to investigate these claims experimentally, starting in Kenya (where there are threats from terrorism and violent crime), and eventually expanding to Zimbabwe (where there is extensive state repression) and the U.S. (where fears of terror and crime may also shape citizen behaviors and even legislation).

We are an interdisciplinary team: an economist and political scientist at Columbia, a Columbia PhD student, and a psychologist from Princeton.

We will begin with lab-in-the-field experiments, working in the Busara Center, an experimental behavioral science laboratory based near Kenya’s largest slum. We will use experiments to test the effects of fearful stimuli on cognition and decision-making in a controlled environment, and relate these effects to political decisions in the lab. Once the effects are understood in the lab, we plan to work with civil society to test the effects of fear on actual behaviors among citizens, leaders, and legislators.

The planning grant will subsidize the first rounds of experiments, and enable us to collect the evidence needed to scale the study, including field experiments.

The Nairobi Center will be a useful bridge to local civil society and government, as well as a base of research operations. We hope to build bridges between the Global Center and the experimental research institutes based in Kenya that the investigators lead: Busara as well as Innovations for Poverty Action. The longer-term project has significant opportunities for additional Columbia and Kenyan student participation.