Psychology of Terrorism

Terrorism is certainly the scourge of our times. Considerable economic, military, political, and scientific resources are devoted these days to the “war on terrorism.” Psychological research is not only relevant but also essential to understanding this issue. Indeed, the psychology of terrorism has become one of psychology’s major growth markets. Books and journals on the topic have been published in unprecedented quantities. Terrorists’ acts of self-destruction and their indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians cry out for a psychological explanation. But what explanations has psychology provided? How do psychologists analyze the phenomenon of terrorism? And how can psychology help eradicate it?

What Is Terrorism?

Psychology of TerrorismBefore answering these questions, it is important to first describe what terrorism is. This is not an easy task. Terrorism researchers have proposed over a hundred different definitions of the phenomenon. Why is it so hard to agree on a definition?

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A major problem is that this term carries a negative connotation. It is for that reason that one person’s terrorist is another’s person freedom fighter. Thus, applying the “terrorism” label to an act depends not only on the act but also on who is applying the label.

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 contains a number of ingredients: For it to be called terrorism, an act needs to be planned (“premeditated”), to be politically motivated, to involve violence, to be carried out in peacetime, to be directed against civilians (i.e., “noncombatants”), and to involve no government directly. 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.

Terrorism as Syndrome versus Terrorism as Tool

Over the years, two psychological approaches to terrorism have appeared. One approach treats terrorism as a syndrome; the other treats it as a tool. 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.

In contrast, the tool view of terrorism does not assume anything psychologically abnormal or unique 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 and motivations. 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.

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. Though not shy of using terrorism, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Sinn Fein, for example, have other means at their disposal (diplomacy, media campaigns) as well as other goals (of a political or social variety). All three have mitigated their use of terrorism or withheld it for a time when alternative means to their purpose appeared feasible or when other goals existed to which terrorism appeared inimical.

In short, different organizations may differ in their potential for relinquishing the use of terrorism. Whereas negotiating with terrorists is unlikely to work with terrorists whose commitment to terrorism is total, it might work with terrorist groups who may entertain alternative means and value alternative goals. On the level of terrorist organizations, then, the terrorism-as-a-tool view helps to explain how terrorism could be of use.

Root Causes versus Contributing Factors of Terrorism

What are the factors that lead individuals to embrace the goal of terrorism? This question has been answered in two ways. Some have tried to identify the root causes assumed to underlie terrorist engagement, whereas others have argued that there is no single root cause but rather several contributing factors that may help motivate an individual to embrace terrorism. The root cause concept implies a factor that constitutes both a necessary and a sufficient condition for some effect. The concept of a contributing factor raises doubts about whether any given personality trait, need, or situational circumstance could constitute such a condition, inevitably giving rise to terrorism. But if an individual were presented with the idea of terrorism, traits, motivations, and situational conditions might well affect the likelihood of his or her embracing it.

Although it may be appealing to identify a single cause for terrorist activity, research thus far has failed to provide supportive evidence that such cause exists. Early psychological investigations asked whether terrorists are driven by some kind of psychological disturbance. However, painstaking empirical research conducted on various terrorist organizations didn’t reveal anything particularly striking about the psychological makeup of terrorists.

That does not mean that psychological factors do not matter. Decades of psychological research have demonstrated that motivation significantly affects the tendency to embrace beliefs on various topics, and beliefs in the efficacy and justifiability of terrorism are no exception. Thus, individuals with appropriate motivations (deriving from their stable personality traits or situational pressures) might be more prone to endorse terrorism under the appropriate circumstances than might individuals with different motivations. In this context, it has been found that whereas in Iran, mortality salience enhanced support for suicide terrorism, in the United States, it enhanced the support for tough antiterrorist measures. In Lebanon, right-wing conservatism predicted the support for terrorism, whereas in the United States, it predicted the support for counterterrorism. In other words, mortality salience and conservative attitudes do not in and of themselves produce terrorism. They are not the root causes of terrorism, but in a social and cultural environment where terrorism is viewed as an acceptable tool, they may contribute to individuals’ endorsement of terrorism.

Research has also failed to find evidence for a relation between poverty or education and terrorism, although some investigators have found that many terrorists come from countries that suffer from political repression. However, from the standpoint of psychological theory, there are reasons to doubt a general causal link between either poverty or political repression and terrorism. Presumably, the underlying logic of such a hypothesized link is that poverty and oppression foster frustration, fomenting aggression against others, ergo terrorism. But in scientific psychology, the simple frustration-aggression hypothesis has long been questioned. Just because one is frustrated does not necessarily mean that one would become a terrorist. Instead, one could escape, withdraw, or aggress against self rather than against others. Thus, again, poverty, lack of education, and political repression may not be considered root causes of terrorism. However, being deprived of opportunities, and hence suffering and frustrated, may be considered a contributing factor in the emergence of terrorism.

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 the goal, and (c) once terrorism is chosen 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, nationalistic) objectives of the terrorist, it brings about the emotional satisfaction of watching the enemy suffer. 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 Alternatives 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.


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  3. McCauley, C. (2002). Psychological issues in understanding terrorism and the response to terrorism. In C. Stout (Ed.), The psychology of terrorism: Vol. 3. Theoretical underpinnings and perspectives (pp. 3-30). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.