This is a link to a study which suggests that Americans are very scared of terrorist attacks (second place, after corrupt politicians). However, only a few hundred people have died due to terrorism for more than a decade in the USA. In comparison, many (and by many, I mean insanely many) more people die because of health- and crime-related issues, and yet, as above study suggests, Americans are actually also afraid of gun-control politics and Obama's lenient (for a lack of a better word) health plan, which seems directly contrary to what it should be.

Why are Americans so scared of terrorism, especially in comparison to clearly more dangerous threats?

Is there a rational reason for this, or is it caused by media propaganda and hysteria?

  • 3
    This is a psychology question. Not really politics.
    – user1530
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:27
  • 5
    Of course it's related to politics. What are you on about?
    – Jaood
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:29
  • 4
    @blip But it has something to do with politics - a lot actually since all this "terror" has been hammered into their brains by politicians, FOX News et al. Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 15:29
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    @DrunkCynic Uh, even if you include the 3000 deaths of 9/11, and even if you add 10000 to that number, it still doesn't outweigh the deats of other things.
    – Jaood
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 16:21
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about psychology and the question lacks basic research. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 17:31

5 Answers 5


People are frightened of terrorism, because it has terrific alarmist value. Same reason someone might be scared of a harmless garter snake, but think nothing of crossing a busy street, where they could be run over. People are frightened of what they are unaccustomed to, or do not understand.

This may have been enhanced in recent years by the rise of user driven social media. Absent an editor to inject a reality check, this tends to result in a 'mob mentality': whatever gets the most attention.

Mass media is in it for the money. They'll hype whatever generates the most ad revenue, a habit that has become distinctly pronounced in recent decades. In the US, the two most popular 'news agencies' exhibit an obvious political slant.


Terrorism gets a lot of attention because it is a threat that is fed by success. When a car accident occurs, other drivers don't commit copycat accidents. Other drivers don't see that someone got away with an accident and consider committing a car accident too.

However terrorism, like other crimes, tends to increase when successes are observed. If someone successfully attacks an airport, then other terrorists will copy it. If they do so successfully then even more terrorists will copy that effort.

Given the magnitude of damage that can result from a successful terrorist attack, there is a desire to nip it in the bud before it spreads.

Compare it to how someone reacts to another person stepping on their toe accidentally vs someone stepping on their toe deliberately. If it is an accident you generally let it go and don't do anything about it. But if someone deliberately steps on your toe to hurt you, you say something, perhaps even shout at them, and you likely try to avoid letting them get close enough to step on your toe again, and you do all this despite the fact that far more people step on your toe accidentally than do so on purpose.


Yes, there is a very rational reason for that. That is the second party who plays the same game: the terrorists. They choose the methods of attack that are the most spectacular and most likely to cause mass panic. People are very naive with their belief they can avoid traffic accident when they are drivers. But when someone else drives, they feel vulnerable because they have no direct control over the situation.

The media make the situation much worse, ignoring most car accidents, but reporting many times about each airplane accident. Terrorists know that filter and do the attacks that are most likely to be reported by media.

So the answer to your question, people fear what terrorists do, because the terrorists do what the people are most likely to fear.

  • I feel a lot more vulnerable when I'm driving than when someone else is.
    – gerrit
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 19:20

The reason (rational reason is a redundancy I think) is that a more tragic event though rare, has a bigger, more lasting impact on our memory, than more familiar, every day violent crimes for example. This link explains the results of the study you mentioned and should answer your question.

However, you did indirectly ask a third question

or is it caused by media propaganda and hysteria?

perhaps implying that you are interested in knowing about the role of the media in cultivating and then exploiting that fear to pass certain political and economic agendas in which case you could more successfully argue that this is a Politics question :)


The basic problem here is that the question in the study is wrongly framed. It isn't generic terrorist attacks that worry most people, it's Islamic jihadists. That the jihadists have chosen to pursue their jihad mainly through terrorism (which is a military/political tactic, not an end in itself) allows the two to be misleadingly conflated.

Likewise, it isn't the past death tolls that worry people. It is that these jihadist groups have a coherent, long-term (1400 years, if you take a broad view) goal in mind.

So no one* worries that much about the one-off terrorist attacks, like the Oklahoma City bombing or attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics, because they don't present an ongoing threat to most people. But jihadists do.

*Other than perhaps IRS/FBI agents, or PP employees.

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