Can You Have It Both Ways? Plausible Deniability and Attribution in Anonymous Coercive Bargaining

38 Pages Posted: 22 Jul 2020 Last revised: 19 Oct 2020

Date Written: June 24, 2020


States and nonstate actors often conduct unclaimed coercive attacks. Regarding these attacks, commentators and scholars commonly observe that targets know the identity of the perpetrator, which allows the coercive message to go through, and that anonymity grants perpetrators plausible deniability, shielding them from retaliation by targets and third parties. The literature has neglected the puzzle of actors reaching diverging assessments about the identity of the perpetrator of anonymous attacks while having the same information. We address the puzzle by theorizing that targets of unclaimed attacks and third parties may reach different attribution judgments due to distinct emotional reactions: targets are more likely to feel angry, which induces a sense of certainty and a desire to blame someone, prompting confident attribution to a plausible culprit despite objective evidentiary gaps. We test our argument with a vignette experiment describing a fictional attack, randomizing whether the attack was claimed by a terrorist organization or remained unclaimed, and whether the respondents’ country or some other country was targeted. The analysis confirms that anonymity suppresses confident attribution for subjects from another country but not for those from the target; anger mediates the tendency for subjects from the target country to confidently attribute anonymous attacks more frequently.

Keywords: Coercive bargaining, plausible deniability, anonymous attacks, attribution, emotions, anger

Suggested Citation

Pischedda, Costantino and Cheon, Andrew and Moller, Sara, Can You Have It Both Ways? Plausible Deniability and Attribution in Anonymous Coercive Bargaining (June 24, 2020). Available at SSRN: or

Costantino Pischedda (Contact Author)

University of Miami ( email )

Coral Gables, FL 33124
United States

Andrew Cheon

Johns Hopkins SAIS ( email )

1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

Sara Moller

Seton Hall ( email )

400 S Orange Avenue
South Orange, NJ 07079
United States

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