Research has found that experiencing a traumatic event at close quarters changes people’s political attitudes. However, in the case of the 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm, proximity to the attack had no additional political significance. Research from the University of Gothenburg shows that Swedes’ attitudes toward terrorism-related questions were affected equally, regardless of whether they happened to be close to the attack.
On 7 April 2017, Rakhmat Akilov stole a truck and ran down multiple people on Drottninggatan, a street in central Stockholm. Five people died, fifteen were injured and many people witnessed the events. Akilov – a sympathiser of the terrorist organisation Islamic State (IS) – was later arrested and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for his actions.
In the case of terrorist attacks, it is common for a population to react by becoming more patriotic, more negative toward out-groups (such as immigrants), and stronger proponents of various types of security measures. There has been a consensus in the research literature that these types of changes in political attitudes are reinforced when people experience a terrorist attack personally – they hear screams and experience things that are assumed to also have an impact on their political attitudes.
Researchers refer to this reinforcement as “vividness”. This assumption has gained widespread acceptance among researchers, but it has not been fully tested empirically until now.
“We need before and after surveys from a sufficient number of people who were caught up in a truly dramatic event to be able to measure this. This is not something that can be done experimentally,” says Jacob Sohlberg, a researcher in political science.
Together with his political scientist colleague Mattias Agerberg, he has investigated whether people who were either on or in the vicinity of Drottninggatan during the attack and who saw, heard or in some other way experienced the events of that day changed their political attitudes more than people who were elsewhere in Sweden.
The study is based on data from the Swedish Citizen Panel. The researchers looked into several different questions related to terrorism and politics, such as national identification, confidence in the Riksdag (the Swedish parliament) and the Swedish Government, whether Swedes believe that Muslims are a threat, attitudes toward immigrants and views on questions related to security and surveillance.
When the attack occurred in 2017, there was a previous survey wave available. Since a number of the respondents included in the Swedish Citizen Panel were in the vicinity of Drottninggatan during the terrorist attack, it was also possible to carry out a survey right after the events. The results of the study indicate that previous theoretical explanations linking the experience of a traumatic event with changes in political views have been exaggerated.
“Although people who were in the vicinity of Drottninggatan were much more affected, they did not change their views on terrorism-related questions any more than Swedesin general. Just because you experience trauma does not mean you change your fundamental attitudes or worldview,” says Mattias Agerberg.
The study therefore challenges the vividness assumption and makes an important theoretical contribution to research on terrorist attacks. At the same time, the study confirms that Swedes – regardless of where they happened to be – reacted in more or less the same way as people in other countries during similar events. For example, Swedes subsequently became more patriotic in their outlook.