Posted: April 18, 2000
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Article SummaryThis 1986 article aimed at helping peace activists develop communication strategies that wouldn’t deepen people’s “psychic numbing” about nuclear weapons. Though its political content is out of date, its prescription – anger, love, hope, and action – is relevant today to coping with public denial about terrorism. (For terrorism I would want to add to the prescription the need to acknowledge and share the underlying fears – what people are “really” afraid of.)

Scared stiff – or scared into action

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1986, pp. 12–16
(winner of the Olive Branch Award for writing about nuclear weapons issues, 1987)
At a time when everyone ought to be working to prevent nuclear war, the “bombing run” tactics of activists have numbed many people. Activists should appeal to more positive emotions to empower people and inspire action.

WHEN THE MOVEMENT against nuclear weapons celebrates its heroes, a place of honor is reserved for Helen Caldicott, the Australian pediatrician who revived Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) in 1978 and made it the vehicle for her impassioned antinuclear crusade. In countless communities since then, Caldicott has briskly narrated the devastation that would result if a small nuclear warhead exploded right here and now. Thousands of activists trace their movement beginnings to a Helen Caldicott speech, wondering if it wouldn't help reverse the arms race just to make everyone sit through that speech – and each week hundreds of activists do their best to give the speech themselves.

Nonetheless, PSR Executive Director Jane Wales, while acknowledging a huge debt to Caldicott, said in 1984 that the time for the “bombing runs” (as insiders call the speech) was past. “We knew it was past when someone interrupted the speech one evening, actually interrupted it, and said, ‘We know all that, but what can we do?’” In a 1985 newsletter, similarly, Sanford Gottlieb of United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War warned that many students were “being numbed by the emphasis on nuclear blast, fire and radiation” in courses on nuclear war and were therefore “feeling more impotent and depressed than before the class began.”(1) Perhaps the first broad awareness that shock therapy may not be the best therapy came, ironically, in 1983 in the weeks preceding the broadcast of the television film The Day After, when Educators for Social Responsibility and others worried that the program might do children more harm than good. The Day After turned out to be less frightening than expected, but other films (Threads, Testament, and Caldicott’s own The Last Epidemic) raise the same worry – and not just for children.

In the following analysis of the fear of nuclear Armageddon and its implications for antinuclear advocacy, we will argue that most people are neither apathetic about nuclear war nor actively terrified of it but rather, in Robert Jay Lifton’s evocative phrase, “psychically numbed”; that it is ineffective to frighten audiences who have found a refuge from their fears in numbness; and that there exist more effective keys to unlocking such paralysis.

THE CENTRAL ENIGMA of antinuclear activism is why everyone is not working to prevent nuclear war. Activists who can understand those who disagree about what should be done are bewildered and frustrated by those who do nothing. Such inaction is objectively irrational; as Caldicott asked in a 1982 cover article inFamily Weekly, “Why make sure kids clean their teeth and eat healthy food if they’re not going to survive?”(2)

Advocates of all causes chafe at their neighbors’ lack of interest. When the issue is something like saving whales or wheelchair access to public buildings, the problem is usually diagnosed as apathy. Psychiatrist Robert Winer argues that the same is true of the nuclear threat, which most of us experience as remote, impersonal, and vague. For Winer, “one of the genuinely tragic aspects of the nuclear situation is that immediacy may be given to us only once and then it will be too late to learn.”(3) There is obviously some truth to this view. When asked to describe their images of nuclear war, people do tend to come up with abstractions – and those with more concrete, immediate images are likely to be antinuclear activists.(4)

Even so, the poll data clearly suggest that Americans today know the threat is dire. Perhaps five years ago, when fewer expected a nuclear war and more expected to survive one if it came, apathy might have been a tenable hypothesis. But the “perception of diminished risk” that historian Paul Boyer attributes to the 1960s does not characterize the 1980s.(5) The war-fighting rhetoric of the Reagan Administration, the new generation of destabilizing weapons, the decline of détente, the studies of nuclear winter, and above all the reemergence of the peace movement have made apathy virtually impossible. When Michael J. Carey asked people what role the bomb had in their lives, a Hollywood cab driver answered for nearly all Americans: “ What role did the sword have in the life of Damocles?”(6)

If people are not apathetic, then, are they perhaps so fearful that they cannot act? Certainly terror is capable of producing paralysis, and the threat of nuclear war is capable of producing terror. The notion that we have all lived with terror since 1945 is powerfully evocative of the moments of nuclear terror that many people do experience. Yet, although children and antinuclear activists report high levels of nuclear fear, the adults whose inaction we are trying to understand acknowledge little fear. Nor should this surprise us. Continuous nuclear fear is undoubtedly rational, but it is also intolerable. To stay sane, people transmute much of the fear into anger and action – or they deny it and go about their business.

Neither apathetic nor frightened, those who are inactive are actively working at not caring. Lifton, the psychiatrist who studied Hiroshima survivors before turning his attention to the ways Americans avoid facing nuclear reality, coined the phrase “psychic numbing” to describe the price paid for unwillingness to confront nuclear terror. Like the terror it masks, psychic numbing is immobilizing. The struggle not to feel saps the energy to act – certainly on nuclear issues and arguably even on other issues.

This active, total, and chronic flight from feeling into paralysis must be distinguished from the partial numbing that can actually facilitate action. Even Caldicott has acknowledged, “Most of the time I don’t think about it. I pretend that life will go on. I sew for the kids. I make cakes and look after the family.… Life’s a fantastic, precious thing. I don’t think about it ending except when I write or talk about it.”(7) It may be useful to think of psychic numbing as a strong and dangerous medicine for fear; in overdose it leads to paralysis, and most people are in overdose.

UNLIKE TRADITIONAL political recruiting, whose goal is to generate concern, antinuclear recruiting must focus on reducing numbness. To determine what role, if any, images of nuclear holocaust might play in achieving this goal, one must turn first to the extensive, if inconclusive, social psychology literature on fear appeals.

One of the earliest and most influential studies tried to persuade ninth graders to brush their teeth. A highly threatening lecture that focused on oral cancer and the like turned out to be less effective than a much milder speech.(8) Well into the 1970s textbooks on persuasion cited this study as the principal evidence that the effects of fear appeals are curvilinear – that is, that moderately fear-arousing messages are more persuasive than either extreme. Various explanations were offered for the curvilinear model, but most postulated that too strong an appeal to fear can terrorize people into inaction.

Research support since the 1953 tooth-brushing study, however, has been meager, and two recent reviews of the literature both concluded that there is a positive, linear relationship between the strength of a fear appeal and the attitude and behavior change of the audience.(9) The emerging consensus of social psychologists is that the scariest messages yield the greatest response.

But this literature deals mostly with low-fear situations.

The typical study attempts to persuade an audience – usually student volunteers – to quit smoking, brush their teeth, wear seat belts, get tetanus shots, or take some other action aimed at improving health or safety. While all these situations are psychologically complicated by factors ranging from peer pressure to addiction, the basic pattern is straight-forward: the audience cares little and the communication tries to induce fear as a way to make it care more.

For ethical as well as methodological reasons, there are virtually no studies of the effects of fear appeals on highly fearful audiences, much less on audiences who have been catapulted beyond fear into numbness. The closest researchers have come is a series of studies showing that while strong fear appeals work best on mellow audiences, milder appeals work just as well, and sometimes better, when the audience is high in overall anxiety.(10) Only a few studies have tried to generate really substantial fear (none, quite properly, has aimed at terror), and their success has been modest. The Boster and Mongeau meta-analysis found only a 0.36 correlation between fear in the message and fear in the audience.(11) It is not so easy to scare people.

Dwelling graphically on the horrors and statistics of home fires – scaring the audience as much as possible, which will not be all that much – may persuade people to buy smoke alarms for their homes. But for a person in a burning house, graphic images are beside the point. And if that person denies the fire is raging, further references to the danger can only deepen the numbing.

Numerous testimonials indicate that the shock therapy of a fear appeal may sometimes cut through paralysis. But such testimonials are usually from activists who were neither paralyzed nor numb in the first place, whose fear was maintained at reasonable levels by their own activism, and who derived new energy and reinforcement from what people in the adjacent seats may well have found intolerable. Our wager is that the fear speeches revitalize the committed into renewed action, startle the apathetic into fresh attention, and torment the terrorized and the numb into starker terror and deeper numbness.

In a set of guidelines for “Helping People Deal With Terrifying Films,” Frances Peavey advised readers in 1981: “Do not stand up after the film is over and try to scare people with further horrifying facts. This is a violent act and does not encourage peace. When people are subjected to too much fear-provoking material, they tend toward numbing, forgetting or feeling so violated that they are hostile to the overall message.”(12) At that time Peavey still saw value in terrifying films, so long as the discussion afterward helped people deal with the feelings they aroused. In 1985, when few are apathetic but many are numbed by terror, the value of the films themselves is much reduced.

It is worth distinguishing between the magnitude of a risk and the probability of its occurrence. Terror and numbness, we think, are predominantly responses to risks too horrible to think about, while preventive action may be likelier when the risk is high in probability but not so high in magnitude. Though the empirical evidence is scanty, this distinction may explain why campaigns against drunk driving seem to work better when they focus on loss of license (a likely occurrence) instead of loss of life (a horrible consequence), or why so many ex-smokers say social pressure, not health, made the difference. Similarly, there is mixed evidence that fear appeals displaced onto one’s friends and family are more effective than fear appeals aimed at oneself. And as most parents figure out themselves, fear seems a better motivator for avoidance (“don’t cross the highway”) than for action (“cross carefully”), since action requires attention to the fear-arousing stimulus. All these complexities argue against the use of fear in antinuclear organizing.

Scaring people is not, of course, the same thing as putting them in touch with their fear. The latter approach, most closely identified with the Interhelp network and the writings of Joanna Rogers Mary, is predicated on the same conviction that underlies this article – that fear and despair about nuclear war are largely repressed in the form of psychic numbing.

Although Interhelp’s workshops try to address the numbness of the uninvolved, most participants are already at least peripherally active in antinuclear activities. It seems reasonable to speculate that encouraging the uninvolved to acknowledge their fear in such a safe environment should diminish their denial, their need to stay numb. With longer-term follow-up, the gentle therapy of an Interhelp workshop is obviously preferable to the shock therapy of a hard-edged fear appeal. Unfortunately, the antinuclear movement can hardly organize the rest of society into half-day workshops, much less arrange the long-term support needed to make the workshops fruitful.

THE ALTERNATIVE – the wholesale answer to psychic numbing – is reassurance. By reassurance we do not mean empty promises that everything will be all right, but rather communications designed to reduce fear and thus reduce the need to keep it numbed. Four antidotes to numbing are anger, love, hope, and action. These concepts – not terror – are the keys to mobilizing a huge popular movement against nuclear weapons.


While most negative emotions such as depression, guilt, and shame are inward and immobilizing, anger focuses the attention outside oneself and is therefore conducive to action. In some people it seems to chase away fear; in others it makes fear tolerable, replacing numbness. In their classic study of peace activists of the early 1960s, Jerome D. Frank and Earl H. Nash found that their respondents' most characteristic emotions were fear and anger, often intense.(13) The authors were so impressed by the prevalence of anger that they speculated that peace activism might constitute “a channeling of destructive feelings into constructive activity.”(14) Obviously not all antinuclear activists are angry people, in general or in regard to the arms race. Indeed, some activist groups identify anger as intrinsically part of the problem, not part of the solution. Edward F. Snyder of the Friends Committee on National Legislation worries, correctly, that targeting an “enemy” of the movement “leads rapidly to dehumanizing others and to oversimplifying our analysis as we search for solutions.”(15)

It is clear nonetheless that for many activists, perhaps most, anger at those responsible for the arms race frees energy for action that is otherwise bound up in fear, guilt, and depression. If the world must not be reduced to a simple morality play, neither can one lose track of real moral differences. Those who threaten the world’s survival must be identified, and one must be willing to feel the surge of anger their behavior merits.

This is not to argue for violence or uncontrolled rage. Anger can be wasted in random acting-out, or it can fuel activism of many sorts. Principled opposition to violence is rooted in the channeling of anger, not in its suppression. Moreover, nuclear terror and numbness are as much political as psychological phenomena – that is, they suit the purposes of those now in power. Psychiatrist Joel Kovel makes the point: “Ultimately, the state succeeds through having people terrorize themselves. … Nuclear terror is the means by which a citizenry becomes intimidated into accepting the paranoid system of states.”(16) For Kovel, working against one’s own terror, against nuclear war, and against the state are ultimately the same work. The process of liberation moves from terror to fear to anger, and then to hope and action.


Anger without love soon becomes sterile or uncontrolled, while love without anger can still inspire a movement. But there is no need to choose; love and anger are compatible. Nothing could better symbolize anger than the powerful bolt-cutters with which the Greenham Common women routinely destroy the fence surrounding the cruise missile site. Nothing could better symbolize love than the webs of twine and ribbon and memorabilia with which they decorate the same fence. We suspect it is this combination – the anger not rancid, the love not languid – that has captured the imaginations of peace activists around the world.

Love is compatible with fear as well. As we suggested earlier, some evidence indicates that people are more affected by fear appeals targeted at their loved ones than by those aimed at themselves. Ironically, one of the classic studies from the early 1960s tried to persuade citizens to support community fallout shelters; strong fear appeals threatening family safety worked better than threats to the individual.(17)

But love is not compatible with psychic numbing. Just as numbness interferes with the ability to love freely, so active love drives away the numbness. Antinuclear activists almost universally report that they remain active less for themselves than for those they love, and that without love they could not stay with the fight. This is not to suggest that these activists are more loving than their neighbors, only that their love helps them stay active and that their activism is a powerful expression of love. It is relevant that the children of activists are far more confident of their futures than most children.(18)

Just as activists rely on love to keep them going, one can mobilize the uninvolved by talking about the people, places, and values one holds dear and encouraging listeners to do the same. Something or someone to fight for is as indispensable to activism as something or someone to fight against.


“The main obstacle to action,” writes Frank, “is neither apathy nor terror but simply a feeling of helplessness. To combat it, I have perhaps overemphasized the small signs that antinuclear activities are at last beginning to influence the political process.”(19) Helplessness, hopelessness, futility, and despair are words one hears even more often than fear from the barely active and the formerly active. And like fear, these emotions can easily lead to psychic numbing. Those who feel powerless to prevent nuclear war try not to think about it; and it serves the needs of those who do not wish to think about nuclear war to feel powerless to prevent it. Messages of hope and empowerment, however, break this vicious circle.

The label “hope,” as we use it, subsumes a wide range of overlapping concepts: for example, optimism, a sense of personal control and efficacy, confidence in methods and solutions, a sense of moral responsibility, and a vision of the world one is aiming for.

It is well established (and hardly surprising) that hope is closely associated with willingness to act. Activism appeals most to people who feel positive about both the proposed solution and their personal contribution to its achievement. Over the long term, this means that antinuclear organizers must communicate a credible vision of a nuclear-free world. Meanwhile, they must offer people things to do that seem achievable and worthwhile. The nuclear-weapons-freeze campaign attracted millions of new activists in 1982 because it offered credible hope. By 1985 many of those millions could no longer ground their hope in the freeze; some found other approaches and some returned to inactivity.

Most social psychologists today see the relationship between hope and action as independent of fear or other feelings. For example, Kenneth H. Beck and Arthur Frankel conclude that three cognitions (not emotions) determine whether people will do something about a health risk: recognizing the danger as real, believing the recommended plan of action will reduce the danger, and having confidence in their ability to carry out the plan.(20) Similarly, Sutton’s review of the fear-appeal literature finds inconsistent support for the notion that people can accept higher levels of fear if they feel the proposed solution will remedy the problem, but strong evidence that, regardless of fear, people are more inclined to act on solutions they see as more effective.(21)

In a 1983 study, Tom R. Tyler and Kathleen M. McGraw found that, compared to the general public, antinuclear activists were more likely to think nuclear war could be prevented, even though they considered nuclear war itself more likely and said they worried about it more.

The activists scored higher than other citizens on measures of general personal and political efficacy, and they were more likely to believe that citizen action would make the difference in preventing nuclear war. Finally, the activists tended to believe that citizens have a moral obligation to work against nuclear war, even though they blamed governments, not citizens, for causing the threat. Interpreting this mix of hope and anger, the authors quote Jesse Jackson: “You are not responsible for being down, but you are responsible for getting up.”(22)

The least studied aspect of hope is the need for an affirmative vision. People require short-term achievable goals as benchmarks along the way to build confidence that progress is being made. But progress toward what? While the movement has done an excellent job of articulating visions of nuclear apocalypse, it has only just begun the much harder job of envisioning a plausible world that has renounced nuclear weapons. It is in that vision that new activists will find their hope, and against that vision that they will measure their efficacy. Constructing it should be a top-priority task.


While people are most likely to take action against nuclear war when they feel angry, loving, and hopeful rather than terrorized into numbness, it is also true that action against nuclear war tends to liberate people’s anger, love, and hope. The growth of commitment is circular, in other words, with feelings, understandings, and behaviors alternating in complex patterns; action, however, is likely to begin the process.

The notion that behavior is as much a cause as a result of feeling, attitude, and knowledge is commonplace among clinicians, who often urge clients to try new behaviors as a way of breaking patterns and opening a path to new understanding. It is familiar ground also for social psychologists and provides the foundation for one of psychology’s most robust persuasion models, Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, whereby behavior triggers an effort to regain consistency by finding information and building attitudes to support the behavior itself.(23)

This theory makes sense of what petition-circulators have universally observed: that people are more likely to read the literature they are offered after signing than before. If before signing they experience the literature as an unwelcome prod, after signing (out of politeness, perhaps) they need the literature to justify their new behavior.

The lesson for the antinuclear movement is clear: Any experience such as signing petitions, wearing buttons, or going to rallies – however partial or even irrelevant its motivation – can provide a reason to consider the issues more deeply, and this consideration can launch a cycle of incrementally increasing commitments to peace. Nurturing the cycle requires at least three things: attractive first steps for commitment; reinforcement of those first steps with information, not only about nuclear issues but also about the importance of the action taken; and intermediate steps, so new and tentative activists are not forced to choose between a heavy commitment that they are not yet prepared to make and a relapse into inactivity.

Above all, perhaps, the movement must avoid setting “admission standards.” Newcomers are sensitive to cues that they know too little or care too little to be activists; if they receive these cues they believe them and leave. The job of the antinuclear organizer is not to confront the audience with unpleasant facts, uncomfortable feelings, and unwanted demands. Rather, it is to encourage ever-increasing commitment to preventing nuclear war, interweaving new behaviors with reinforcing information that appeals to anger, love, and hope. New activists deserve gentle treatment – not shock treatment.

What sort of behavior can start the process?

  • It should be easy to do, and people should feel confident that they know how to do it. In fact, considerable evidence shows that persuasive messages (fear appeals or not) are more likely to work when they include specific instructions on how to perform the recommended actions.(24)
  • It should be public. Taking a stand requires public accountability; private actions are too easy to deny and therefore generate little cognitive dissonance.
  • It should feel effective. The experience of failure saps hope, while the experience of success builds hope. This is why experienced organizers make sure their campaigns begin with achievable short-term objectives. But even success will not build hope unless it is a success that matters, that is not too sadly disproportionate to the nuclear threat.

“If we arouse ourselves to the peril,” writes Jonathan Schell at the end of The Fate of the Earth, “and act to forestall it, making ourselves the allies of life – then the anesthetic fog will lift: our vision, no longer straining not to see the obvious, will sharpen; our will, finding secure ground to build on, will be restored; and we will take full and clear possession of life again.”(25)

The task of activists is to choose life and to help others choose life as well. It will help, we think, to see those who have not yet chosen life as numb rather than apathetic, and to respond to psychic numbness in others by evoking not more fear but anger, love, hope, and action.


1. Sanford Gottlieb, “Avoiding Overkill in Nuclear War Education,” UCAM Network News (April 1985), p. 1.

2. Dr. Helen Caldicott, “Growing Up Afraid,” Family Weekly (Aug.8, 1982), p. 4.

3. Robert Winer, “Alarums and the Man: The Place of Nuclear Anxieties in Human Psychology,” George Washington University Conference on Psychological Aspects of the Nuclear Arms Race, April 26, 1985.

4. Susan T. Fiske, Felicia Pratto, and Mark A. Pavelchak, “Citizens’ Images of Nuclear War: Content and Consequences,” Journal of Social Issues (1983), pp. 41–65.

5. Paul Boyer, “From Activism to Apathy: America and the Nuclear Issue, 1963–1980,” Bulletin (Aug.–Sept. 1984), pp. 14–23.

6. Michael J. Carey, “Psychological Fallout” Bulletin (Jan. 1982), p. 23.

7. Rob Okun, “Waking America Up to the Nuclear Nightmare,” New Roots (March/April 1980), p. 3.

8. I.L. Janis and S. Feshback, “ Effects of Fear-Arousing Communications,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 48 (1953), pp.78–92.

9. Stephen R. Sutton, “ Fear-Arousing Communications: A Critical Examination of Theory and Research,” in J. Richard Eiser, ed., Social Psychology and Behavioral Medicine (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1982), pp. 303–37; Franklin J. Boster and Paul Mongeau, “Fear-Arousing Persuasive Messages,” in Robert N. Bostrom, ed., Communication Yearbook 8 (Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1984), pp. 330–75.

10. Boster and Mongeau, op. cit., pp. 353–55.

11. Ibid., p. 345.

12. Frances Peavey, “Helping People Deal With Terrifying Films” in Joanna Rogers Macy, Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age, (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1983), p. 177.

13. Jerome D. Frank and Earl H. Nash, “Commitment to Peace Work: A Preliminary Study of Determinants and Sustainers of Behavior Change,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Jan. 1965), p. 113.

14. Ibid., p. 117.

15. Edward F. Snyder, “Sustaining the Peacemaker: Spiritual Resources for the Long Haul,” Quaker Life (July–Aug. 1982), pp. 7–8.

16. Joel Kovel, Against the State of Nuclear Terror, (Boston: South End Press, 1983), pp. 84–85.

17. F.A. Powell, “The Effects of Anxiety-Arousing Messages When Related to Personal, Familial, and Impersonal Referents,” Speech Monographs, vol. 32 (1965), pp. 102–6.

18. Marcia Yudkin, “When Kids Think the Unthinkable,” Psychology Today (April 1984), p. 2S.

19. Letter from Jerome D. Frank to Peter M. Sandman, June 5, 1985.

20. Kenneth H. Beck and Arthur Frankel, “ A Conceptualization of Threat Communications and Protective Health Behavior,” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 44 (1981), pp. 204–17.

21. Sutton, op cit., pp. 314–16.

22. Tom R. Tyler and Kathleen M. McGraw, “The Threat of Nuclear War: Risk Interpretation and Behavioral Response,” Journal of Social Issues, vol. 39 (1983), p. 37.

23. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, Cal.:Stanford University Press, 1957).

24. Sutton, op. cit., pp. 316–17.

25. Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (New York: Knopf, 1982), 231.

Copyright © 1986 by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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