Sikh-owned shops burn as a mob looks on. Delhi, November 1984. Sikh-owned shops burn as a mob looks on. Delhi, November 1984.

Seeking Safety: The Cognitive and Social Foundations of Behavior during Violence

See the APSR article verison of the book project

See the complete book proposal


My book project asks: what determines the strategies that people pursue to keep themselves safe in complex, violent environments like inter-communal conflict in South Asia? Some of the strategies people choose—like fleeing or participating in violence—have substantial political consequences, but existing literature falls short in explaining why one person might respond to violence by migrating internationally while their neighbor and co-ethnic waits for the storm to pass. I develop a political psychology theory, situational appraisal theory, which focuses on variation in individual interpretations of violent environments to explain civilian behavior during political violence. I argue that variation in the way people interpret particular characteristics of a violent situation—how controllable and predictable violence is—shapes their preferences over different survival strategies, leading some people to believe their best option is to flee their homes, while others try to fight back, hide, or adapt. I use the theory to explain behavior in historical violence in India and in recent/ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine. I also test the theory’s generalizability to international security domains with a large survey experiment.

I first use the theory to explain the behavior of Indian Sikhs who encountered violence in rural insurgency and urban pogroms during the 1980s. I develop a new method that uses machine learning models for multilingual text classification and automated video analysis to find patterns in oral histories. I use the method to analyze an archive of hundreds of oral history videos and show that situational appraisals of control and predictability explain substantial variation in Sikh civilians' choice of survival strategies when confronting violence. I bolster these main findings with in-depth oral history case studies and analysis of dozens of original interviews. An article version of these chapters is available in the American Political Science Review. In subsequent chapters, I test the theory as an explanation for civilian behavior in the 2001-2021 U.S. war in Afghanistan, use survey data from thousands of participants to explore the origins and structure of situational appraisals, and identify policy implications that flow from the research—especially for ongoing conflicts like the Russian war in Ukraine.

Three implications emerge from the book. First, I show that individual perceptions of violent threats exert an independent influence on the choices people make: changing a person’s appraisals of control and predictability can affect which strategies of survival they pursue (or at least prefer). Second, my research directly challenges conventional wisdom and existing literature which implies that resource access and violence intensity are sufficient explanations for behaviors like forced migration or participation in violence. Third, my work has practical implications for understanding conflict stabilization and escalation: because appraisals are not perfectly correlated with structural factors, stabilization and reconstruction efforts that focus exclusively on the purported root causes of conflict will likely fall short if they do not strive to make life during violence more predictable.