Understanding the Psychology of Terrorism

Terrorism is unfortunately the scourge of our modern society. In the quest to fight it, considerable economic, military, political, and scientific resources are being channeled heavily to the “war on terrorism”. Thus, psychological research is very relevant and quite an essential resource to the understanding of terrorism.

Indeed, the psychology of terrorism has become one of psychology’s major growth markets, as myriad books and journals have been written specifically to explain the callous acts of self-destruction and indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians masterminded and carried out by terrorists.

But what explanations has psychology provided? How do psychologists analyze the phenomenon of terrorism? And how can psychology help eradicate this menace? To provide answers to these questions, it is important to describe what terrorism is.

What Is Terrorism?

The U.S. Department of State formally defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence conducted in times of peace, perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience to advance political ends.”

This definition carries with it a number of ingredients: For it to be called terrorism, an act needs

Such a multidimensional definition allows one to set terrorism apart from

  1. state-originated violence at times of war (e.g., the bombings of German or Japanese cities during World War II),
  2. incidental killings of noncombatants (so-called collateral damage), and
  3. underground resistance to occupation.

Psychological Approaches to Terrorism: Terrorism as Syndrome versus Terrorism as Tool

Over the course of researches, two psychological approaches have been explored. One approach treats terrorism as a syndrome; the other treats it as a tool.

Terrorism as Syndrome

The syndrome view treats terrorism as a unique phenomenon with its own psychology. From this perspective, terrorists are considered different from nonterrorists. They are assumed to differ not only in what they do, but also in who they are, and why they do what they do. In this respect, terrorism is considered akin to a mental disorder, like depression or schizophrenia. The syndrome view of terrorism also suggests that there could exist external root causes of terrorism, such as poverty or political oppression, which inevitably breed terrorism.

Terrorism as Tool

The tool view of terrorism, in contrast, does not assume anything about terrorists. This view depicts terrorism as a means to an end, a tactic of warfare that anyone could use. It suggests that like the rocket launcher, the tank, or the AK-47 assault rifle, terrorism may be used by nonstate militias, state-sponsored military, and even lone perpetrators. If one assumes that terrorism is a means to an end, its psychology can be well understood by general theory and research on goals Opens in new window and motivations Opens in new window.

Basically, this body of knowledge has taught psychologists that a specific means is used when a person considers it of a high expected utility. That is, if a person wants to achieve something, he or she is more likely to use a tool or means, if it is seen as helpful to such attainment. If it is so seen, the tool or means is considered to have high expected utility.

Moreover, a tool is particularly high in expected utility if the thing the person wants to achieve is important to him or her. Thus, to the extent that a tool is highly helpful to the achievement of important goals, it is said to have high psychological utility.

So what does this mean for the psychology of terrorism?

As the name implies, the tool view of terrorism suggests that the tool of terrorism may, for some individuals and under some circumstances, be particularly high in expected utility. In such cases, terrorism may be seen as helpful to the achievement of highly important goals, and the actors involved may feel they have no other means that are equally helpful. The goals of the terrorists and their available means are of great relevance for understanding the psychology of terrorism.

In light of these ideas, it may be possible to think of various ways in which terrorism is used by different organizations. Utopian Islamist groups, for example, have doctrines and convictions that leave little room for negotiation, dialogue, or peacemaking. For them terrorism and violence represent the only available means. Given such depth of commitment to violence, it is unlikely that anything short of a total defeat will convince the Utopian Islamists to give up their use of terrorism. The situation is different for terrorism-users for whom terrorism represents merely one among several available instruments.

Discouraging Terrorism

The tool view of terrorism suggests that terrorism may particularly thrive in circumstances under which no alternative tools are available to achieve one’s goals and in which the individual has a strong conviction that these goals are important to attain. According to this view, discouraging terrorism amounts to convincing the perpetrator that (a) this means is not of use to achieve the goal, (b) there are alternative and better means to achieve particular goals, it will be carried out at the expense of other goals that may also be worthwhile to attain.

Perceived Use of Terrorism

Though schematically simple, implementation of these strategies is anything but that. A major difficulty is that events are perceived differently by different parties. Such perceptions are often biased by interests and motivations. For example, throughout much of the second intifada, about 80% of the Palestinian population supported the use of terror tactics against the Israelis, believing this to be an effective tool of struggle. By contrast, the majority of the Israelis (85%) viewed Palestinian terror as counterproductive. It seems plausible to assume that the divergent motivations of Israelis and Palestinians importantly colored their beliefs in this matter.

Terrorism may be difficult to give up also because, apart from presumably helping to achieve the ideological (political, religious, ethnonationalistic) objectives of the terrorist, it brings about the emotional satisfaction of watching the enemy suffers. In that sense, terrorism is multipurpose, adding up to its appeal or the total value of objectives to which it appears of use. Such counterterrorist policies as ethnic profiling, targeted hits, or inadvertent collateral damage might further enhance the terrorists’ rage, amplifying the emotional goal of vengeance against the enemy. A recent empirical analysis suggests that targeted hits by the Israeli forces boosted the estimated recruitment to the terrorist stock, presumably due to Palestinians’ revenge motivation. Thus, whereas targeted hits do hurt the terrorist organizations and may decrease the perceived efficacy of terrorism, they may also increase the appeal of terrorism by increasing the intensity of the emotional goal it may serve.

Feasibility of Alternative to Terrorism

Whereas alternative goals (such as revenge) may increase terrorism’s appeal by increasing the total expected utility of terrorism, perceived availability of alternative means to the terrorism’s ends may decrease it. such availability brings about the possibility of shifting to a different means and abandoning terrorism, at least for a time. For instance, following the election in 2005 of Mahmud Abbas to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority and a renewed chance for a peace process (i.e., an alternative means potentially helpful to end the Israeli occupation), support for suicide attacks among the Palestinians dipped to its lowest in 7 years; a mere 27%.

Alternative Objectives

Discouraging people from using terrorism may also be attained by making potential users of terrorism aware of alternative objectives that do not fit well with terrorism. In the Palestinian context, the opposition to suicide attacks is particularly pronounced among Palestinians likely to possess the means to alternative, individualistic goals, for example, professional, family, or material goals. Such opposition reached 71% among holders of B.A. degrees compared to 61% among illiterates, 75% among employees compared to 62% among students, and, curiously enough, 74% among individuals willing to buy lottery tickets (i.e., individuals presumably interested in material goals) compared to 64% among those unwilling to buy them.