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

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How do people confronting violence decide whether to respond aggressively or passively, whether to evade threats or to adapt to them? What are the political causes and consequences of their decisions? My dissertation explains how people make choices when they are trying to survive violence, and why the choices that people make can vary widely, even within groups that are otherwise similar. I develop and test situational appraisal theory, an individual-level theory of decision-making to explain why similar people pursue different strategies during violence. I argue that an individual’s appraisals of control and predictability amidst violence shape their preferences for different strategies, and show that appraisals vary individually as a function of information, emotions and memories, personality, and social influence. I test my theory with a multi-methods approach. I use interviews and oral histories, machine learning text analysis tools, and survey experiments to examine how situational appraisals shape decisions in three political domains. One empirical test uses text and video analysis of oral history evidence and interviews to examine decisions made by Indian Sikhs facing insurgent and pogrom violence; another uses survey experiments to measure how American voters weigh foreign policies. I find that “high” control appraisals lead people to address threats by approaching them while “low” control promotes evasive behavior. Further, finding threats predictable promotes more conservative survival strategies while finding violence unpredictable encourages drastic action. My findings show the importance of addressing perceptions—especially predictability—in policy efforts to stabilize communities in conflict, constrain escalation in high politics, or dis-incentivize public support for military aggression.