Confidence in Government and Emotional Responses to Terrorism After September 11, 2001

Published date01 January 2009
Date01 January 2009
Subject MatterArticles
APR319954.qxd American Politics Research
Volume 37 Number 1
January 2009 107-128
© 2009 Sage Publications
Confidence in Government
hosted at
and Emotional Responses
to Terrorism After
September 11, 2001
Kimberly Gross
George Washington University
Paul R. Brewer
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Sean Aday
George Washington University
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, an unusually large percentage of
Americans expressed high levels of confidence in the institutions charged with
responding to the terrorist attacks. By the following summer, such confidence
had declined significantly. This study draws on data from a panel study
conducted in fall 2001 and summer 2002 to track Americans’ emotional
responses to terrorism and their levels of confidence in government institu-
tions as well as to explore how these phenomena were related. It is focused
on whether—and if so, how—the positive emotions of pride and hope influ-
enced confidence in institutions and helped sustain that confidence over time.
Positive relationships between hope, pride, and confidence during both study
periods are found. Analysis of confidence and emotions over time suggests
reciprocal relationships between confidence and hope. Taken as a whole, the
findings point to the importance of considering the emotional sources and
implications of confidence.
confidence in government; trust; affect; public opinion; terrorism;
September 11; anxiety

In recent years, scholars and commentators have focused increased atten-
tion on the consequences produced by Americans’ evaluations of govern-
ment. For example, studies have shown that such evaluations affect
compliance with governmental authority (Scholz & Lubell, 1998), voting
behavior (Hetherington, 1999), trust in other people (Brehm & Rahn, 1997),
and policy preferences (Chanley, Rudolph, & Rahn, 2000; Hetherington,
2004; Hetherington & Globetti, 2002; Rudolph & Evans, 2005). Furthermore,

American Politics Research
evaluations of government may be particularly important in times of crisis.
As Hetherington (1998) observes, public faith in government helps to pro-
vide leaders and institutions with the political capital to take action when a
problem emerges.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United
States undertook a number of sweeping policies as part of the fight against
terrorism. Political leaders drew on support for the government in undertak-
ing actions designed to prevent future terrorist attacks and assist victims.
Policies proposed as counterterrorism measures required sacrifices ranging
from restrictions on liberties to potential loss of life in military conflicts.
Thus, confidence in the institutions tasked with carrying out these measures
may have enhanced the government’s ability to undertake and sustain sup-
port for the kinds of actions that President Bush and others argued would be
required in the ongoing “War on Terror.” Consistent with this notion, Davis
and Silver (2004) found that “the more people trust the federal government . . .
the more willing they are to allow the government leeway in fighting the
domestic war on terrorism by conceding some civil liberties” (p. 35).
Similarly, Brewer, Gross, Aday, and Willnat (2004) found that trust in gov-
ernment fostered support for the use of military force in the aftermath of
September 11, 2001. Given such consequences, it is crucial that we under-
stand what shaped confidence in government during this period.
Previous research has examined cognitive influences on evaluations of
government (e.g., Brehm & Rahn, 1997; Chanley et al., 2000; Citrin &
Green, 1986; Hetherington, 1998; Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 2002; Lipset &
Schneider, 1983; Miller & Borrelli, 1991). To date, however, the literature
has told us relatively little about the emotional foundations—or, for that
matter, the emotional effects—of confidence in government. These strike us
as potentially important oversights. It seems plausible that Americans’ eval-
uations of government are tied not only to their thoughts but also to their
feelings. Indeed, such connections between emotion and confidence may be
particularly evident when an event such as a political crisis elicits strong
emotional responses from a large proportion of the public.
In this study, we argue that Americans’ emotions may have carried impli-
cations for their evaluations of government in the aftermath of September
Authors’ Note: This research was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation
(SES 0201511) and the Russell Sage Foundation. The authors would like to thank Lee
Sigelman, Lars Willnat, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kimberly Gross, School of
Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University, 805 21st Street NW, Suite 400,
Washington, DC 20052; e-mail:

Gross et al. / Emotional Responses to Terrorism After 9/11
11, 2001. Rallies in support of government such as the one that followed
the terrorist attack may be accompanied by emotional reactions that help to
foster confidence and to sustain that confidence over time. We also explore
the possibility that evaluations of government carried implications for
Americans’ emotions during this period of crisis. We begin by drawing on
data from a panel study conducted in fall 2001 and summer 2002 to look at
aggregate levels of confidence in government and emotional responses to
terrorism. Next, we use individual-level analyses to explore who expressed
confidence, hope, and pride and to examine whether confidence and these
emotions were related to one another at each point in time. We then analyze
whether citizens’ emotional reactions to terrorism shaped change in confi-
dence and whether confidence shaped change in emotions.
Prior Research on Emotion After
September 11, 2001
Political events can be emotionally engaging (Kinder, 1994), as the case of
September 11, 2001, illustrates. Surveys conducted in the aftermath of the
attacks showed that Americans experienced a variety of emotions during this
period (Huddy, Feldman, Lahav, & Taber, 2003; Huddy, Feldman, Taber, &
Lahav, 2005; Huddy, Khatib, & Capelos, 2002; Smith, Rasinski, & Toce,
2001). For example, Huddy et al. (2003) found that just under a third of respon-
dents reported feeling scared or frightened sometimes or very often and almost
half of the respondents reported feeling anxious or worried at least sometimes
in their study of emotional reactions from October 2001 to March 2002.
Much of the research on the consequences of emotional responses to the
attacks has focused on the effects of anxiety. Huddy and her colleagues
(2003, 2005) found that post–September 11, 2001, anxiety was negatively
related to support for military action in Afghanistan, active involvement in
world affairs on the part of the United States, and the president who favored
these actions. They also found that fear and anxiety were negatively related
to trust in others. Other research has explored the effects of fear and anger on
perceived risks of terrorism (Fischhoff, Gonzalez, Lerner, & Small, 2005;
Lerner, Gonzalez, Small, & Fischhoff, 2003)1 and the effects of pride and
threat on attitudes toward civil liberties and security (Davis & Silver, 2004)
in the wake of September 11, 2001. Our study departs from previous research
by focusing on whether—and if so, how—the “positive” emotions of hope
and pride were related to confidence in government during this period.

American Politics Research
Emotion and Confidence in Government
After September 11, 2001
Like other political judgments, evaluations of government should depend
on what considerations one brings to bear when asked to make them (Zaller,
1992). We argue that positive emotions such as hope and pride may influ-
ence confidence because emotional reactions themselves may serve as con-
siderations. In claiming that emotions serve as considerations that inform
judgments, we draw on the affect-as-information approach of Schwarz
(2000). Schwarz suggests that people rely on their feelings to make judg-
ments so long as the feelings are perceived as relevant to the judgment at
hand (Schwarz, 1990; Schwarz & Clore, 1983). Here, we expect that emo-
tional reactions to terrorist threats are seen as relevant to judgments about
the political institutions responsible for the fight against terrorism.
In her work on public mood, Rahn draws on the affect-as-information
approach to argue that emotional reactions influence political judgment
(Rahn, 2000; Rahn, Kroeger, & Kite, 1996). “Affective information,” she
argues, “can substitute for more cognitively expensive forms of information
and can aid people in their attempts to form political opinions” (Rahn, 2000,
p. 130). She goes on to suggest how this might work in the case of social
trust: “In deciding whether most people are deserving of trust, individuals
ask themselves how they feel about the society in which they live and then
‘reason backwards’ to their beliefs about people in general” (p. 141).
Consistent with this affect-as-information approach, Rahn finds that social
trust assessments are systematically related to public mood valence.2
Extending Rahn’s account, it may be that emotions influence not only
social trust but also confidence in government: Those who feel positive emo-
tions such as hope and pride may exhibit particularly high levels of confi-
dence. In the case at hand, citizens who were called...

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