Making Sense, Making Choices: How Civilians Choose Survival Strategies during Violence

Riot devastation in the Sikh neighborhood of Trilokpuri. Delhi, November 1984.


How do ordinary people choose survival strategies during intense, surprising political violence? Why do some flee violence, while others fight back, adapt, or hide? Individual decision-making during violence has vast political consequences, but remains poorly understood. I develop a decision-making theory focused on individual appraisals of how controllable and predictable violent environments are. I apply my theory, situational appraisal theory, to explain the choices of Indian Sikhs during the 1980s–1990s Punjab crisis and 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms. In original interviews plus qualitative and machine learning analysis of 509 oral histories, I show that control and predictability appraisals influence strategy selection. People who perceive “low” control over threats often avoid threats rather than approach them. People who perceive “low” predictability in threat evolution prefer more-disruptive strategies over moderate, risk-monitoring options. Appraisals explain behavior variation even after accounting for individual demographics and conflict characteristics, and also account for survival strategy changes over time.

Conditionally Accepted at the American Political Science Review
Aidan Milliff
Aidan Milliff
Assistant Professor