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The Psychology of Terrorism

The Psychology of TerrorismTerrorism is not a particularly new problem — it’s been a part of the world since civilization first organized. Despite how old it is, what we know about terrorist motivations and psychology is fairly limited. There isn’t a whole lot of empirical, scientific research on this topic (although there is an abundance of theory and anecdotal reports). But luckily, psychologists are slowly changing that, according to an article in the American Psychological Association’s monthly magazine, Monitor on Psychology.

One researcher, John Horgan PhD at Pennsylvania State University, found that people who are more open to terrorist recruitment and radicalization tend to:

  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
  • Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
  • Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

A lot of this is not particularly surprising, as we learn time and time again from the profiles constructed in the media of famous terrorists after-the-fact. But the insights gained from talking to ex-terrorists helps us better understand individual terrorists’ motivations:

For instance, based on what he’s gleaned about why people leave organizations, a particularly promising strategy may be highlighting how the promised glamorous lifestyle never comes to pass — an experience poignantly recounted by a former terrorist now in hiding. The man told Horgan he was lured into a movement as a teen when recruiters romanticized the cause. But he soon discovered his comrades held sectarian values, not the idealistic ones he had, and he was horrified when he killed his first victim at point-blank range.

“The reality of involvement is not what these kids are led to believe,” says Horgan. “Speaking with repentant former terrorists, many with blood on their hands, offers an extraordinary opportunity to use the terrorists’ own words and deeds against them.”

Arie Kruglanski PhD, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), conducted a study that surveyed thousands of people in 15 countries. In the yet-unpublished research, he found that “Muslims who have a more collectivistic mentality are more likely to support terrorist attacks against Americans than those with more individualistic leanings. The research also found that the lower people’s reported personal success in life, the greater their tendency to endorse collectivistic ideas and to support attacks against Americans. The findings suggest that joining terrorist groups may confer a sense of security and meaning that people do not feel as individuals.”

Psychologist Clark McCauley PhD, a co-investigator at START and director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, believes that too much focus is on terrorist behaviors and their motivations, while ignoring the larger picture of how governments can unintentionally be reinforcing some of the terrorist’s actions:

[I]f terrorists commit an attack and a state uses extreme force to send a punishing message back, the terrorists may use that action to drum up greater anti-state sentiment among citizens, lending justification to their next actions. Yet research focuses almost solely on terrorist actions and neglects the important other side of the equation, he contends.

So how do you combat terrorism, if not by sheer force (which, as we’ve seen, is largely ineffective)? Kruglanski and other researchers have some ideas, by implementing anti-terrorism programs that are delivered to captured terrorist prisoners. The programs have three parts:

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

Similar programs like this can help entire radical Islamic groups renounce violence when well-implemented and embraced, as the original article notes with specific examples. The key is teach potential terrorists that much of their terrorist teachings were based upon lies, that you need to address their anger and frustration, and help them find a life within everyday society. This doesn’t seem like rocket science, and yet today, we still seem to ignore the potential of these interventions and strategies for helping to reduce terrorism in the world.

Although it’s lengthy, if you’re interested in this topic, the full article is well worth a read.

Read the full article: Understanding terrorism

The Psychology of Terrorism

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Terrorism. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Nov 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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