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The Psychology of Political Risk: Repression, Fear and Mobilization


Lauren Young
Columbia University 


Michael Clemens
Center for Global development

Many authoritarian regimes wield the threat of repression to maintain power despite a lack of popular support. In such contexts, citizens who do not support the regime must assess the risk of publicly expressing their dissent and make decisions about how to behave in low-information, emotionally-charged environments. I draw from cognitive psychology to argue that the emotion of fear affects how citizens perceive and process information about repression risk. Specifically, fear makes citizens pessimistic in their perceptions of the risk of repression, and risk averse. I test the implications of this theory using a lab-in-the-field experiment with 671 urban and rural opposition supporters in Zimbabwe. I find that fear reduces participation in dissent by between 14 and 77% on a range of hypothetical and behavioral measures. There is also evidence for a cognitive channel: fear increases pessimism about others' actions and the personal risk of repression as well as risk aversion. These results suggest that emotions can be used strategically to enhance repressive threats to demobilize citizens.

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