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The Psychology of State Repression: Fear and Dissent Decisions in Zimbabwe

  • LAUREN E. YOUNG (a1)

Many authoritarian regimes use frightening acts of repression to suppress dissent. Theory from psychology suggests that emotions should affect how citizens perceive and process information about repression risk and ultimately whether or not they dissent. I test the effects of emotions on dissent in autocracy by running a lab-in-the-field experiment with 671 opposition supporters in Zimbabwe that randomly assigns some participants to an exercise that induces a mild state of fear, whereas others complete a neutral placebo. The fear treatment significantly reduces hypothetical and behavioral measures of dissent by substantively large amounts. It also increases pessimism about parameters that enter into the dissent decision as well as risk aversion. These results show that emotions interact in important ways with strategic considerations. Fear may be a powerful component of how unpopular autocrats exclude large portions of their populations from mobilizing for regime change.

Corresponding author
*Lauren E. Young, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Davis,,
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My thanks to the data collection team at Voice for Democracy. Thanks to Abhit Bhandari, Graeme Blair, Christopher Blattman, Alexander Coppock, Macartan Humphreys, Albert Fang, Grant Gordon, Donald Green, Kimuli Kasara, Dacher Keltner, Adrienne LeBas, Andrew Little, Isabela Mares, John Marshall, Eldred Masunungure, Gwyneth McClendon, Tamar Mitts, Suresh Naidu, Gabriella Sacramone-Lutz, Camille Strauss-Kahn, Thomas Zeitzoff, and seminar participants at CAPERS, WGAPE, NEWEPS, the Yale Institute for Social and Political Studies, APSA, and the Columbia Comparative Politics Seminar for feedback at various stages. Thanks to the US Institute for Peace; the International Peace Research Association Foundation; the Earth Institute Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity; the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; the Columbia University Department of Political Science; and the National Science Foundation for support for this research. This experiment was pre-registered with EGAP and can be accessed at This research was approved by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board under protocol IRB-AAAP2200. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

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