High school seniors and the nuclear threat 1975-1984: Political and mental health implications of concern and despair

As awareness of the threat of nuclear war has increased over the past decade (1975-1984), young people have learned to cope with the possibility of unimaginable catastrophe. This paper accordingly begins by reviewing literature on how people cope with the threat of nuclear war, in order to reconcile general theories of coping with nuclear anxiety with taxonomies of reactions to the nuclear threat. The study examines both theories and taxonomies in light of time series data collected by the Monitoring the Future project that relates to coping patterns, in order to address the question of whether the “success” Americans have had in coping with the nuclear threat has rendered them incapable of resolving the problem creatively or decisively. Time series analyses indicated that, rather than becoming fatalistic about the threat of nuclear war, young people tended to retreat to the position that the threat of nuclear war was not an imminent problem. Combining these ideas with a summary taxonomy of reactions to nuclear threat provides ideas about what aspects of people's attitudes must change if current nuclear policies are going to change. The paper concludes that arguments concentrating on the potential imminence of nuclear war, rather than the magnitude of its expected devastation, might have greater influence on public attitudes. (TE)