Terrorism fails because we don’t see its purpose

In an article for Wired, security guru Bruce Schneier suggests that the reason terrorism fails is because it falls foul of a cognitive bias in how we understand people’s intentions from their actions.

Schneier bases his conclusions on a recent paper [pdf] by Max Abrahms who applies correspondent inference theory to terrorism and the political objectives of terrorist groups.

‘Correspondent inference theory’ suggests that we try and understand people’s intentions and character based on the most salient effect of their actions.

This can often lead us astray, as demonstrated by a regular plot line in soap operas where someone’s good intentions accidentally misfire and the person on the receiving end assumes they’re being deliberately malicious.

As noted by Schneier and Abrahms, this also leads us to misunderstand the goal that motivates terrorist acts:

The theory posited here is that terrorist groups that target civilians are unable to coerce policy change because terrorism has an extremely high correspondence. Countries believe that their civilian populations are attacked not because the terrorist group is protesting unfavorable external conditions such as territorial occupation or poverty. Rather, target countries infer the short-term consequences of terrorism — the deaths of innocent civilians, mass fear, loss of confidence in the government to offer protection, economic contraction, and the inevitable erosion of civil liberties — (are) the objects of the terrorist groups. In short, target countries view the negative consequences of terrorist attacks on their societies and political systems as evidence that the terrorists want them destroyed. Target countries are understandably skeptical that making concessions will placate terrorist groups believed to be motivated by these maximalist objectives.

In his paper, Abrahms examines the political objectives of terrorist groups and looks at how successful terrorism has been in obtaining them. He reckons, with a generous estimate, that only 7% of the stated goals have been achieved.

But he also notes that the stated goals rarely gets through to the people being targeted and that the political rhetoric of the terrorists’ target is littered with misunderstandings of their intentions.

I’m personally interested in how and why terrorists are labelled ‘mad’. It’s in the terrorists’ interest to be seen as sane, as part of the goal is to force concessions.

There’s no point conceding to someone who you think is unbalanced, because an irrational group might not stop the violence once they’ve achieved their aims.

The fact that violent protestors are so often labelled as ‘mad’ suggests, as per correspondent inference theory, that we assume their is no coherent intention behind their actions, contrary to what they are trying to achieve.

Anyway, an interesting look at the motivations and perception of political violence.

Link to ‘The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail’.
pdf of Max Abrahms’ paper ‘Why Terrorism Does Not Work’

One thought on “Terrorism fails because we don’t see its purpose”

  1. Two things
    First – there can be negotiating benefits of appearing irrational, or at least extreme in your reactions. If you won’t compromise then this can force the hand of the other party into concessions (Pinker has an extended discussion of the game theory of negotiation in relation to the irrationality of emotions, e.g. violent rage, in How The Mind Works).
    Second – although it may be in the terrorists’ interests to have their motives understood, but misunderstanding can arise not just from psychological *failings*, but from active benefits to the misunderstanding on ‘our’ behalf – i.e. outgroup stigmatisation, political manuvering: if the enemy is mad then you don’t have to address their grievences.

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