Terrorism, society and psychology

The latest edition of Monitor on Psychology has an excellent article on the psychology of terrorism, looking at both what motivates people to join terrorist organisations and what influences attitudes to terrorist groups.

Being an article in the publication of the American Psychological Association, it’s a round-up of American research on terrorism, however, there are two findings on terrorism which perhaps suggest one of the political challenges in dealing with the problem.

One of those is from terror management theory, in which making people temporarily conscious of a risk to their life or their impending mortality affects how people think about a range of issues, including response to terrorism:

To test whether the theory applies to the conflict between the Middle East and the West, Pyszczynski’s team conducted a set of studies in the United States, Iran and Israel. In all three countries, people who were subtly reminded of their mortality‚Äîand thus primed to cling more strongly to their group identities‚Äîwere more likely to support violence against the out group. Iranians were more likely to support suicide bombing against Westerners. Americans were more likely to advocate military force to battle Islamic extremists, even if it meant killing thousands of civilians. Israelis were more likely to condone violence against Palestinians.

So discussing mortal threat increases people’s desire for violent responses to perceived terrorism.

However, the article makes clear that radicalisation is potentially increased by violent responses and that successful deredicalisation programmes take a supportive rather than a punitive approach:

In preliminary research, Kruglanski and colleagues note that many of these programs share:

‚Ä¢ An intellectual component, often involving moderate Muslim clerics who hold dialogues with imprisoned detainees about the Qu’ran’s true teachings on violence and jihad.

‚Ä¢ An emotional component that defuses detainees’ anger and frustration by showing authentic concern for their families, through means such as funding their children’s education or offering professional training for their wives. This aspect also capitalizes on the fact that detainees are weary from their lifestyles and imprisonment.

• A social component that addresses the reality that detainees often re-enter societies that may rekindle their radical beliefs. A program in Indonesia, for instance, uses former militants who are now law-abiding citizens to convince former terrorists that violence against civilians compromises the image of Islam.

So the political dilemma seems to be that simply discussing the threat of terrorism makes people less likely to support the most effective counter-terrorist programmes, owing to the effect of mortality awareness increasing the desire for violent responses, which, if carried out, could increase support for terrorism in the target population.

Answers on a postcard please…

Link to article ‘Understanding terrorism’.

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