Public Opinion & Nuclear Weapons

Reinventing Civil Defense

From 2017 - 2020, I was a Principal Investigator (PI), with Alex Wellerstein, on the Reinventing Civil Defense project. Funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the project sought to create and evaluate new media tools to more effectively communicate with younger generations of Americans about nuclear weapons risk.  The project convened experts from academia, government, public policy, entertainment, journalism, and the arts. The works produced included video games, virtual reality, a short story, podcasts, a theatrical play, a graphic novel, an interactive website, a multi-dimensional art installation, and a poster contest. 

Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons: Crossing the Threshold? 

Is the public more willing to use low-yield nuclear weapons than the high-yield nuclear weapons traditionally designated for retaliation? Through survey experiments conducted in the United States and United Kingdom (January 2023), we investigate the conditions under which publics support the use of low-yield nuclear weapons in a Russia-NATO conflict. This research speaks to whether low-yield nuclear weapons are viewed as stabilizing or destabilizing among the public.

Nuclear Weapons Risk Communication: Evaluating the Impact of Message Exposure and Format

Many experts believe the risk of nuclear war today is the highest it’s been in generations. Yet much of the public has little awareness of nuclear threats and is ill-prepared to take the actions needed to save lives, including their own. Using a survey experiment on a diverse national sample of U.S. citizens fielded across two time periods, this study evaluates the impact of risk communication regarding nuclear weapons threat. We measure the effectiveness of nuclear preparedness messages across formats, finding infographics to be the most effective. Importantly, we also find that any message exposure improves recall of the recommended action, confidence, and message acceptance, with these shifts positively impacting subsequent behavioral intentions.

Understanding Americans’ Perceptions of Nuclear Weapons Risk and Subsequent Behavior

Since the end of the Cold War, widespread discourse about nuclear weapons risk has disappeared, resulting in a lack of awareness of nuclear threats among U.S. citizens. Yet recent events have made nuclear weapons risk salient again, and some experts believe the risk of nuclear attack is higher today than it was during the height of the Cold War. Across two surveys of more than 1,500 American citizens, we demonstrate that most individuals do not think about nuclear weapons risk or the possibility of nuclear attack. We find evidence that age and media usage are important individual characteristics that affect perceptions of nuclear risk, apathy about the topic, as well as related behavioral intentions and actions. These types of relationships warrant greater scholarly attention, as improved understanding has implications for policy makers, the emergency management community, and directly for citizens. 

Bridging the Generational Divide on Nuclear Weapons: Assessing Understanding & Engagement with New Media Formats

As the possibility of a nuclear weapons strike has dominated headlines, citizens have likely encountered a variety of nuclear risk communications. These include newspaper articles, television news segments, and public service announcements (e.g. NYC), among others. While there has been a surge in public interest overall, polls have also demonstrated divisions in how Americans perceive nuclear threats. To what extent do generational differences account for individuals' risk perceptions? This research uses two national surveys (June 2021, March 2022) to assess differences in nuclear risk perceptions by age, gender, and partisanship. Using an experimental design, I measure engagement with several new media tools regarding nuclear weapons. The tools include a graphic novel, an interactive website, a podcast, and video games. I find evidence of significant generational differences in baseline nuclear risk estimates which are associated with media engagement. The results are discussed in terms of apathy, fatalism, and nuclear attitudes more broadly.