Terrorism, Psychology behind

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Terrorism, Psychology behind

Research concerning the psychology of terrorism has focused primarily in two directions. First, psychology has examined the impact of terrorism on survivors and victims as well as the population under threat. Second, it has studied the psychology behind perpetrators of terrorism. In other words, psychologists have examined the question of what enables an individual or group to commit acts of large scale property destruction and/or mass murder that may even result in the terrorist's own death for political ends.


Terrorists often are portrayed as the personification of evil, or as possessing some underlying measure of extreme psychopathology. Such a characterization may enable individuals to feel safer, for they may believe that if the targeted perpetrator is eliminated, the threat of terrorism will disappear. Unfortunately, this is not an accurate perception.

There are a myriad of reasons behind the motivations of terrorists, ranging from self-interest and fanaticism to group social influences. Leaders, while unlikely to commit acts of terrorism themselves, are most often motivated by self-interest or fanatical belief systems. Self-interested leaders may be motivated by a desire for power, recognition, money, land, or other self-directed goal. Thus, the use of terrorism may serve as more of a means to these self-serving ends than as an effort to achieve the espoused goal for their people or group. Ironically, many such leaders will work to create barriers to the expressed goal for their people, as the attainment of the goal would lead to an end of their leadership role within the terrorist organization. Thus, for example, terrorist attacks may increase prior to any movement towards resolution of a conflict or peace, because such a resolution would not be in the self-interest of the terrorist group's leadership.

Fanatics or true believers are particularly dangerous, in that they may perceive their terrorist actions as a means for achieving a greater good. This results in a reversal of morality, whereby the taking of innocent lives may come to be viewed as righteous action to be rewarded both in the present and after one's death. Certainly, the pairing of religion and hate is an extremely destructive combination. Religious validation of hate and social inequity only serves to fuel enmity. One of the most effective ways to maintain hate and social inequities is to cite religious doctrine. In fact, leaders may selectively use religious doctrine or scripture to dictate that other religious groups be held as inferior, thereby promoting the formation of intra-religious hatred and the potential for terrorism.

While leaders are necessary for the coordinated survival of a terrorist organization, the continuation of such a group may depend less on the specific, idiosyncratic leader than on the simple presence of someone in a leadership position who has learned basic group dynamics. The most effective terrorist leaders are in tune to the needs and abilities of their followers and can therefore maximize their manipulation of the group towards the overall goals of the terrorist organization. Most terrorist attacks are committed by followers who are otherwise very ordinary people. Unfortunately, they have been made to feel needed, valued, and efficacious by their involvement in the terrorist organization, and this leads them to develop a high level of loyalty to both the leader and the group.

Robert Lifton argues that one of the features of highly destructive groups is totalism, which extends beyond an "us-them" dichotomy to an "us against them" philosophy. This belief system, taken to the extreme in terrorist and other destructive groups, pushes individuals to separate from all who are not associated with the group. This isolation of group members from those not associated with the group leads to Lifton's second feature of highly destructive groups—environmental control. Through environmental control, leaders can manipulate the majority of what is seen, heard, or experienced by the group and the "purity" of the information to which the group is exposed.

Group dynamics within a terrorist organization can further entrench individual hatred and greatly increase the likelihood of violence. For example, the organizational structure of most terrorist groups is quasimilitary and necessitates conformity to the group ideal. There are often very severe penalties for not conforming, ranging from ostracism and verbal aggression to physical violence. Thus, group members may initially feel pressure to engage in hatred and violence, knowing only too well the ramifications of nonconformance. Later, after engaging in such acts, cognitive dissonance—the internal pressure to achieve consistency between our thoughts and actions—necessitates that members either internalize a rationale for their hatred of the "other" or leave the terrorist organization. The pressure to internalize the group's ideology becomes even more salient upon the introduction of a powerful authority figure or leader. Eventually, the adage of "in for a penny, in for a pound" applies, as terrorist recruits are subjected to increasing levels of commitment, are pressured to conform, and are driven to obey their leaders. In an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance, recruits become increasing committed to the terrorist organization's ideology and activities, increasingly identify themselves solely as a terrorist group member, and become increasingly loyal to those in positions of authority.

Terrorist organizations also tend to foster a sense of anonymity or de-individuation among members. By stripping individuals of their identities through increased anonymity, de-individuation causes people to become less self-aware, feel less responsible for their actions, and become more likely to engage in violence if placed in a provocative situation. The quasi-military structure of many terrorist organizations, with their uniforms and clearly identifiable proscribed rules for behavior, facilitates the processes of de-individuation, conformity, diffusion of responsibility, and ultimately violence if the terrorist group leadership dictates such behavior.

Finally, to facilitate movement along a path of escalating enmity and potential violence, terrorist group leaders promote increasing levels of dehumanization. The process of dehumanization begins with the increased promotion of stereotypes and negative images of the target of their enmity. This is often a necessary tool, used to reduce the cognitive dissonance that may occur when individuals behave negatively towards other human beings. Propaganda is another vital tool used by the terrorist group leadership to stigmatize and dehumanize the "other," as well as to present the target of hate as an imminent threat. Therefore, the terrorist group members may come to believe that their family, friends, and communities existence is dependent on the destruction of the "other."

Concomitant with dehumanization is the process of moral exclusion. Over time, terrorist group members begin to view the "other" as a threat and begin to morally disengage. In other words, certain moral principles that exist within the terrorist's own group no longer pertain to those outside of the group. Thus, terrorist acts, including the killing of other human beings, become morally acceptable, as the "enemy" no longer is included in the terrorist's sphere of morality.

Survivors, Victims, and Restorative Justice

Survivors and victims of terrorism face a myriad of psychological reactions in response to a terrorist attack. These reactions can range from an acute stress reaction to a long-term cluster of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and possible accompanying depression. The closer an individual is to a terrorist attack, the greater the likelihood they will experience either short- or long-term psychological effects. The greatest psychological trauma will occur in those individuals who personally experience a direct threat of death or serious injury, or who witnessed the death or serious injury of another and who also felt horror, fear, and intense helplessness in response to the situation.

It is normal for individuals who experience a terrorist attack either directly or indirectly to respond with emotions such as intense grief, anger, detachment, confusion, numbing, and disorientation. Individuals who continue to have such strong emotional and cognitive reactions for more than two days with accompanying recurrent thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares about the event may be experiencing acute stress disorder. A diagnosis of acute stress disorder is most likely if the individual's functioning on a day-to-day basis is significantly impaired and there is marked evidence of anxiety symptoms.

Most individuals will recover from the trauma associated with terrorism within a relatively short period of time. However for some individuals, particularly those most directly impacted by the event, the symptoms associated with acute stress may extend beyond three months. If the symptoms persist and continue to impair daily functioning, cognitive processing, or relationships, then the person may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and need additional treatment. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder typically include emotional numbing, detachment from others, hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, and intrusion of memories related to the terrorist attack into the individual's daily life or dreams. Additionally, the individual will work to avoid cues reminiscent of the attack and may experience extreme panic, fear, or aggression if confronted directly with sudden reminders or recollections of the terrorist attack.

On a broader societal level, terrorist attacks create an immediate crisis for individuals, groups, and communities directly impacted by the attack. Crisis can be very destabilizing and often results in threats to the individual, such as loss of group pride, an escalation of fear, frustration of needs and wants, and confusion regarding personal identity. In addition, crisis usually leads to an increase in prejudice. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a time experienced by most in the United States as crisis, prejudice and hate crimes spiked. For example, anti-Arab hate crimes increased, attacks on Asian-Americans, particularly immigrants, increased dramatically, and anti-Semitism spiked from 12 to 17 percent. Crisis can also draw individuals to a wide variety of organizations such as religious groups, political groups, and cults, as well as hate groups. Unfortunately, groups with destructive agendas and ideologies built on hate may provide the shortest route to an individual's sense of perceived stability through mechanisms such as scapegoating, just-worldthinking (the belief that people get what they deserve), ingroup-outgroup polarization, hedonic balancing (denigration of the "other" as a means to one's self-esteem), and other processes. It is also important to remember that there may be incredible pressure on leaders to acquiesce to demands of terrorism, as crisis and the constant threat of additional terrorist attacks further destabilizes a culture. It is therefore imperative that leaders and constructive organizations within a culture impacted by terrorism work constructively to bring an end to terrorism, work together to heal the trauma associated with terrorism, and work towards restorative justice.

From a psychological perspective, there are three predominant responses towards ending terrorism: reform, deterrence, and backlash. Reform means addressing the concerns of those who are in situations that may lead them to perceive that desperate measures are the only possible solution to their problems. If their problems are realistically addressed, the urge to take terrorist action may be reduced. Second is backlash. Terrorists often hope that these desperate measures will raise awareness of their concerns and support for their cause. In this instance, terrorism and the media operate within the context of a symbiotic relationship. Backlash occurs when the target audience is appalled, offended, and outraged by the terrorist act as opposed to being drawn in and sympathetic. And, finally, there is deterrence. Essentially, deterrence involves the threat of retaliatory action in response to attacks. Such retaliation can range from sanctions to targeted military attacks. Of all the methods discussed above, deterrence in the absence of the other methods is the least effective.

Both deterrence and restorative justice are difficult to achieve, due to the differences in psychological perceptions between victims and perpetrators of any form of harm or attack. First, a difference in perception of harm exists between victims and perpetrators. Victims perceive the extent of the harm as greater than the perpetrator does, and victims tend to view all actions on the part of the perpetrator, including those resulting in accidental outcomes, as being intentional. In addition, victims feel the reverberations of the harm extending over a much longer period of time, including intergenerationally. Ironically, perpetrators tend to perceive themselves as victims in a reversal of morality. Because of these differences in perception, victims' retaliatory responses tend to be viewed as out of proportion by the original perpetrators, thus enhancing the perpetrators perception that they are in fact being victimized. This may result in further aggression, including terrorist attacks directed towards the original victims, and may unfortunately escalate the cycle of violence. For groups to move beyond this pattern or achieve at least a cessation of violence, each group must come together to understand the partisan perceptions of the "other." This, of course, does not excuse the actions taken by terrorists, but rather explains psychologically why retaliatory responses to terrorism may in fact serve to escalate the danger of future terrorist attacks. Ultimately, each group must work to understand the perceptions of the other and acknowledge the harm caused by all involved so as to move towards restorative justice.

SEE ALSO Perpetrators; Victims


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Lifton, Robert J. (1989). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Pyszczynski, Thomas A., Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg (2002). In The Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

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Stout, Chris E., ed. (2002). The Psychology Of Terrorism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Woolf, Linda M., and Michael R. Hulsizer (2002/2003). "Intra- and Inter-Religious Hate and Violence: A Psychosocial Model." Journal of Hate Studies 2:5–26.

Linda M. Woolf

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