Fear of Nuclear Threat

Xi Xie
March 25, 2013

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2013


Fig. 1: Figure 1. The fear of nuclear war. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since the first, and only, military use of nuclear weapons in World War II, killing 200 thousand Japanese, nuclear bombs have ranked the 1st killer that may destroy the earth. Although for the 70 years after 1945 no second nuclear explosion has been used against humans, many people, especially youth, are suffering from the fear of nuclear threat. It is important to investigate how far and how deeply the nuclear threat affects our human life. Intensive study has been conducting to study the physical and health suffering from nuclear radiation on people or animals living in or near the place where nuclear bombs exploded. [1] Psychological impact has drawn psychologists' and even the whole societies' attentions to see how widely the fear of nuclear threat has spread. Indeed, the harmful psychological effects may include the anxiety of health concerns of nuclear radiation, the fear of devastating war, or the anxiety of lost control on one's own life. All these anxieties may lead people to a passive view towards the world. [2] On the other hand, the sensitivity to the nuclear war may play a positive role in reducing wars because even small-scale conflict can easily lead to devastating consequence if nuclear bombs are employed into war, hence motivating humans to work against becoming involvied in wars. [3] In this work, both negative and positive psychological effects are reviewed to evaluate how widely the anxiety of nuclear war impacts our world.

Negative Psychological Effects

According to a large scale study conducted by M. Schwebel in America in 1960s into the psychological impacts on humans, especially to the children and adolescents of school age, the nuclear threat greatly affected the thoughts, life plan and feelings of the younger generation, enhancing the anxiety among large populations. [4] Similar studies conducted by John Mack revealed that the most disturbed groups are children, adolescents, and those who are responsible for the welfare of family or others. [5] He found that a lot of people surveyed showed deeply disrupted by the fear of nuclear war. These people doubted their own future, doubted the planning of families, doubted the future of human society, and doubted the meaning of the existing world, since a nuclear bombs exploding would easily destroy everything. These people felt a sense of helplessness and vulnerability. In addition, they found that the youth was the most psychologically vulnerable group among the population they surveyed. The answers of children were found to be less consistent with the older youth. According to S. Kiraly, this is because the child's mental process is more sensitive, and their reactions and responses are more easily emotionally driven. [2] Since anxiety and denial are a barrier to meaningful reaction and behavior, which serves as an important factor in criminal behavior, these studies conclude that the threat of nuclear war has a highly negative impact on the stability of human society, not only because of its potential to destroy the world, but also because of its negative psychological effect on a large population, especially the vulnerable youth.

Positive Psychological Effects

Although the fear of nuclear war spread among a large population leaves anxiety, a sense of helplessness, and a lack of confidence in future in the younger generation, the fear has played a positive role in reducing the large-scale war on the world in the last 50 years. Researchers have studied this phenomenon through basic psychological principles (motivation, perception, and personality) and how they are related to the causes and prevention of war. [3] Ralph White investigated and analyzed how these psychological effects are related to the prevention of war. [6] He conducted the analysis from two levels - the citizen and the government, and studied how these levels impact the actions to reduce war. In addition to psychology, he considered a broad spectrum of factors, including education, law, political science. Although the fear of nuclear war is negative, the human society benefits from the fear in that many more people are educated and realize how harmful wars can be since nuclear bombs can easily destroy the world. The fear and anxiety motivate human to restrict the initiation of war. A large population of people act by law, by government selection, or by public promotion to prevent war as much as they can. All of these effects reduce the occurrence of large-scale war, and this progress was witnessed by everyone in the world for the past 50 years. In this respect, the fear contributes significantly to the peace of world.


In summary, nuclear war significantly impacts the feelings and increases anxiety among the population at large. The younger generation is the most vulnerable group. The fear of nuclear war leaves sense of helplessness and lack of confidence. These negative feelings may further lead to passivity towards planning the future life and sometimes even to criminal behavior. However, the fear and anxiety of nuclear war educates human society to realize how harmful it is once large-scale war is initiated, and hence motivates the government and citizenry to seek ways of reducing war by means of law and other political methods. The progress is significant, as large-scale warfare has been much reduced during the past 50 years.

© Xi Xie. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] F. L. Wong et al., "Noncancer Disease Incidence in the Atomic Bomb Survivors: 1958-1986," Radiat. Res. 135, 418 (1993).

[2] S. J. Kiraly, "Psychological Effects of the Threat of Nuclear War," Can. Fam. Physician 32, 170 (1986).

[3] J. G. Blight, "How Might Psychology Contribute to Reducing the Risk of Nuclear War?" Political Psychology 7, 617 (1986).

[4] M. Schwebel, Behavioral Science and Human Survival (iUniverse, 2003).

[5] J. E. Mack, "The Perception of U.S.-Soviet Intentions and Other Psychological Dimensions of the Nuclear Arms Race," Am. J. Orthopsychiatry 52, 590 (1982).

[6] R. K. White, ed., Psychology and the Prevention of Nuclear War (New York U. Press, 1986).