American Political Science Review

Research Article

Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons


a1 Dartmouth College

a2 Stanford University

a3 Dartmouth College


How strong are normative prohibitions on state behavior? We examine this question by analyzing anti-nuclear norms, sometimes called the “nuclear taboo,” using an original survey experiment to evaluate American attitudes regarding nuclear use. We find that the public has only a weak aversion to using nuclear weapons and that this aversion has few characteristics of an “unthinkable” behavior or taboo. Instead, public attitudes about whether to use nuclear weapons are driven largely by consequentialist considerations of military utility. Americans’ willingness to use nuclear weapons increases dramatically when nuclear weapons provide advantages over conventional weapons in destroying critical targets. Americans who oppose the use of nuclear weapons seem to do so primarily for fear of setting a negative precedent that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons by other states against the United States or its allies in the future.


c1 Daryl G. Press is Associate Professor, Department of Government, Dartmouth College, 6108 Silsby Hall, Hanover, NH 03755 ([email protected]).

c2 Scott D. Sagan is Caroline S.G. Munro Professor, Department of Political Science, and Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, Encina Hall, 616 Serra Street, Stanford, CA 94305 ([email protected]).

c3 Benjamin A. Valentino is Associate Professor, Department of Government, Dartmouth College, 6108 Silsby Hall, Hanover, NH 03755 ([email protected]).


  For their thoughtful comments and suggestions on previous versions of this research, we thank the participants in workshops at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation, Dartmouth, Harvard, Cornell, and Georgetown—especially Tyson Belanger, Steven Brooks, Lynn Eden, Rebecca Davis Gibbons, David Kay, Samantha Luks, T.V. Paul, Nina Tannenwald, Michael Tomz, Dustin Tingley, Erik Voten, James Vreeland, and Jessica Weeks—as well as the co-editors and anonymous reviewers at the APSR. We also thank the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Chansoo and Elisabeth Bittner Joung for their generous support of this research. Special thanks to Reid Pauly for his editorial and research assistance.