Nuclear Threat Psychology

Nico Hoerner
March 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Model of the first nuclear bomb. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In August of 1945 right before the Japan was hit with the bombs, the global nuclear inventory was two 0.01 megaton bombs (Fig. 1). While the impact of those two bombs was immense, there were 13,000 megatons of weapons between the U.S. and Soviet Union by the mid 1980s. [1] This stood not only as a potential risk for the countries involved, but as a potential threat to human existence. The existential risk of nuclear war makes it a unique aspect of humanity, so it's not surprising that the mere threat of it is enough to create psychological issues. Only two nuclear bombs have ever been dropped in war, yet nuclear warfare has effects on mankind just in its possibility of occurring again. While much of the focus lies in military logistics and international relations, the public is impacted as well.


The cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States brought the potential of nuclear warfare to center stage. With this in mind, a 1985 study by S. J. Kiraly examined the psychological effects on normal citizens involved. [2] It reveals that nuclear threat affects the everyday lives of both adults and children through different forms of anxiety. Generally, the most vulnerable groups are children, adolescents, unemployed, and those accountable for the wellbeing of others. The results of this threat revolve around anxiety, and extend to criminality, drug abuse, and family breakdown. The latter is a social dynamic that particularly stands out, as adults often avoid the issue of nuclear threat through denial, while internally they battle anxiety and depression. While this adult behavior is personally harmful, it also has a direct effect on their children. With their parents sidestepping discussion, kids are forced to encounter this looming threat without the guidance of parental figures. For these children, dealing with this heavy mental load on their own not only raises personal anxiety, but builds increased mistrust of adults. [2]

While there are many negative aspects, there is also a potentially positive impact hidden amongst the anxiety. With increased nuclear threat comes a larger focus on preventing it. [3] In this manner, fear is a productive motivator, as increased attention promotes higher education, preparation, and restrictions surrounding this warfare. This concept of nuclear deterrence was further drawn out by Jacques Hymans, who also introduced the idea of nuclear taboo. [4] For many leaders, simply acquiring a bomb is unattractive just in how it distorts their national identity. While the threat of nuclear bombs has not gone away, it speaks to some disagree that none have been dropped in over 70 years. With this in mind, it seems that the ironic relationship between apocalyptic threat and sustained peace holds strong.


Nuclear warfare is an aspect of society that gets a lot of attention, but there are subcategories within it that are often overlooked. While extensive time and energy is spent on simply preventing nuclear war, the psychological impact of nuclear threat is a legit issue that needs more attention. The efforts to prevent nuclear war obviously need to continue, but tied to this is also the need for increased attention for victims of the stress. Furthermore, better understanding the psychological relationship between nuclear threat and nuclear war prevention can increase the chance of more bombs dropping.

© Nico Hoerner. 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] K. M. Mcgraw and T. R. Tyler, "The Threat of Nuclear War and Psychological Well-Being," Int. J. Ment. Health 15, 172 (1986).

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

[3] X. Xie, "Fear of Nuclear Threat," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2013.

[4] J. E. C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2006).