Fear of terror in Britain before 7/7

Two years before the recent London bombings, Robin Goodwin and colleagues surveyed 100 employees at the British Library in London, and 240 students in London and Oxford, to see if there was a relationship between what they valued in life and how threatened they felt by terrorism.

People who placed more importance on enjoying their life were more fearful of being personally at risk of an attack. Somewhat paradoxically, people who reported being more open to change (valuing variation and novelty, being creative and curious) felt less personally at risk. The researchers also found older people, women, and those living in the suburbs rather than the city, thought a terror attack was more likely. On average, the staff at the British Library said an attack in Britain was 66 per cent likely, while the students said 46 per cent (where 0 per cent meant “not at all likely” and 100 per cent meant “extremely likely”). That an attack would directly affect themselves or their family, the library staff said 34 per cent likely, and the students 20 per cent. Those people who reported believing an attack was more likely, tended also to say they had changed their travel plans and avoided ‘high-risk’ areas.

“Our data suggest that older respondents living in suburban locations may require greater psychological assurance about levels of risk, whilst individuals higher on openness to change values may be less easy to alert about preparations for a potential attack…”, the authors said.

They concluded: “Our findings show that particular individual and demographic factors can contribute to perceptions and responses to terror threats. Social psychologists need to consider these factors as an important part of their theoretical arsenal as they seek to understand, and hopefully in time, help alleviate, this continuing threat”.

Goodwin, R., Willson, M. & Gaines Jr. S. (2005). Terror threat perception and its consequences in contemporary Britain. British Journal of Psychology. In Press. DOI: 10.1348/000712605X62786

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.