//The Psychology of Terrorism
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The Psychology of Terrorism

By Dr. David Patrick Houghton*

The systematic study of the psychology of terrorism is beset with methodological problems. Most notably, we usually lack access to actual terrorists, as well as the expertise required to study them face to face. A West German study of terrorist suspects in 1981 – in which the prisons were opened to researchers – was seemingly a good opportunity to study the phenomenon, but it produced disappointing results; researchers came to diametrically opposed conclusions about what causes terrorism.[1]

It might be questioned, of course, whether the study of terrorism – especially since 9/11 – has become disproportionate to the actual incidence of the phenomenon.  After all, poverty and malnutrition kill millions more people every year than the few thousand who die in terrorist attacks, and terrorism is actually declining by some measures. We suffer from what Cass Sunstein has called “probability neglect”, tending to overestimate the statistical odds of dying in an attack.[2] This is because terrorism induces what Daniel Kahneman calls “an availability cascade”, capturing the headlines but obscuring the fact that death from terrorism is actually a rather rare event.[3]

Many approaches to the topic sidestep psychology altogether.[4] Nevertheless, this chapter contends that such approaches are essential, but that we will most likely learn more about the topic via the application of sociological or social psychological approaches than we will from traditional, individually-based ones. Terrorism is a group-based activity, and psychological understanding will therefore be furthered by approaches like groupthink or social identity theory which focus on the activity of collectivities, rather than just looking at terrorist leaders themselves. Terrorists are not usually insane or mentally defective, for instance, although they are frequently unusual in their beliefs and ‘out of the mainstream’. Indeed, the secrecy and self-discipline required for this activity means that insane individuals are usually weeded out by the organization itself.

The traditional approach to this topic has been to try to understand terrorists as individuals or as leaders, and the wave of terrorist acts since 9/11 has given this field new impetus. “Countering this new level of threat requires understanding of such leaders as Osama bi Laden and Shoko Asahara”, Jerrold Post and Stephen Walker argue. “To apply psychological operations effectively to terrorism, the attributes of the target must be specified, particularly leadership and pattern of decision making. One cannot effectively target a group without a clear understanding of its leaders and decision structures, which vary widely from group to group”.[5]

Going beyond a focus on individual-level theories to the “abnormality” thesis is understandable, especially after a highly publicized attack like the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11 2001, the London Underground bombings on July 7 2005, or the November 13 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. The tendency to believe that the perpetrators of such acts must be “mad” is all too human; surely no one who is psychologically normal would be capable of killing hundreds or thousands in the name of some political or religious objective. Such a view of terrorism is reinforced by images of fanatics like Osama Bin Laden or the “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski. Equally, we are often quite surprised by images of terrorists who resemble perfectly “normal” members of society. Timothy McVeigh, for instance, played a key role in the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995— a crime for which he was later executed—but media images showed McVeigh to be a clean-cut “boy next door” type, the very opposite of Kaczynski.

By the same token, though, researchers have searched in vain for what John Horgan terms “the terrorist personality”, and have looked for evidence of psychological “abnormality” without much result.[6] Terrorist profilers have found little other than the fact that those who commit these actions tend to be young and male. Terrorism is a method, however, not the preserve of a particular type of personality. It is a weapon of the weak, a form of asymmetric warfare that is utilized by those who lack conventional military superiority or expertise. As Rex Hudson notes:

In contrast with political scientists and sociologists, who are interested in the political and social contexts of terrorist groups, the relatively few psychologists who study terrorism are primarily interested in the micro-level of the individual terrorist or terrorist group. The psychological approach is concerned with the study of terrorists per se, their recruitment and induction into terrorist groups, their personalities, beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and careers as terrorists.[7]

Is there any such thing as a terrorist personality, though? After briefly looking at what terrorism is – a very old debate which nevertheless will not detain us long – we shall begin by looking at the older dispositionist literature, focusing in particular on frustration- aggression theory, narcissistic rage theory and the authoritarian personality theory. We shall then examine some of the logical difficulties which beset this literature, problems which all three share in common. Finally, we will look at more situationist approaches which seem promising. After many years of reliance on theories that emphasize the supposed abnormality of terrorists, it is now rather more conventional to view terrorism in a situationist rather than dispositionist way. In other words, analysts are focusing on the environmental factors which give rise to terrorism, rather than individual level or personality attributes of its practitioners.

The Puzzle of Terrorism

The very term “terrorism” provokes judgements which lie in the subjective eye of the beholder; for example, the Republican President Ronald Reagan famously described the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s as akin to the Founding Fathers of the United States, while many of the congressional Democrats regarded them as terrorists.  The phrase “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” has accordingly become something of a cliché over the years. But what distinguishes terrorism from other acts of political violence is that “terrorism is theater”, as Brian Jenkins notes:

Terrorism consists of acts carried out in a dramatic way to attract publicity and create an atmosphere of alarm that goes far beyond the actual victims. Indeed, the identity of the victims is often secondary or irrelevant to the terrorists who aim their violence at the people watching. This distinction between actual victims and a target audience is the hallmark of terrorism and separates it from other modes of armed conflict. [8]

Terrorists are trying to convey a political message to a wider group, and in this sense their victims are “secondary” or incidental. Terrorism differs from mass killing and most murders in this sense. While the aim of mass killing or genocide is to kill an entire people, the intended purpose of terrorism is to kill only a few people in order to attempt to influence the broader audience of which that group is a part. In most murders, meanwhile, the intended victim is usually the actual one, and the person killed is not “secondary or irrelevant”.

Fundamental issues remain, however. Louise Richardson, a noted contemporary expert on terrorism, asks a question which continues to perplex many:

Why does an individual decide to join a terrorist organization, to stay in one, to lead one, or to leave one? Why does a human being decide to kill others he does not know in furtherance of an objective unlikely to be realized in his lifetime, and in so doing put himself outside the law and dramatically increase the likelihood that he will be killed or imprisoned and his family will be at risk.[9]

When analysts have attempted to understand this question using psychological models, they have traditionally drawn upon a variety of psychoanalytic theories that are essentially Freudian in origin.[10] All such approaches are strongly dispositionist in character, and all share common difficulties as a theory of terrorism.

Frustration–Aggression Theory

Frustration–aggression theory has long been a popular explanation for terrorism and political violence in general. First developed it in the late 1930s John Dollard and his colleagues,[11] it argues that aggression occurs when an individual is frustrated. Stated simply, the theory suggests that frustration always leads to aggression, and that aggression is always the result of frustration. Terrorism, meanwhile, is an (often unconscious) form of “displacement,” As Robins and Post suggest within this general approach:

A consequence of threatened social identity is frustration and an unfocused readiness to strike out. In the Iranian revolution, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini adroitly focused the frustration and aggression of a population suffering from a fragmented, threatened identity by identifying the enemy first as the Shah of Iran and then as the “great Satan” of the United States.[12]

For instance, a man who has lost his job one day might come home and take his aggression out on the family. No matter that the family has nothing to do with why this has happened; the frustration is displaced onto another target, since it is difficult to ‘punish’ one’s boss (or former boss). In a similar way, this approach suggests, terrorism is nothing more than aggression displaced onto something else. The “abnormal” terrorist personality, by this reckoning, results from personal frustration with one’s own life at home.

Frustration of one’s goals does seem to play an obvious role in terrorist activity, especially where the political makeup of the state allows no other outlet for “normal” political activity. Moreover, there is some support for this approach in the literature. The famous study of terrorists in West Germany alluded to earlier, for instance, found that many of the subjects had experienced personal difficulties in their earlier life. About one-quarter, the study found, had lost a parent in their childhood years.

Narcissistic Rage Theory

There is probably a tiny bit of vanity or even narcissism in all of us, since it presumably plays a role in maintaining our feelings of self-esteem. The term “narcissist” comes from the Greek legend of Narcissus, an attractive young man who liked his own reflected image so much that he fell in love with himself. Some scholars, however—most notably Richard Pearlstein in his The Mind of the Political Terrorist, John Crayton and Jerrold Post—have suggested that narcissism in its extreme form provides a plausible explanation for terrorist activity.[13] The narcissist is deeply convinced of his or her own significance in the wider world. Unfortunately for such individuals, their exalted self-image is rarely shared by others. According to this theory, this ‘blocking’ effect can produce narcissistic anger and aggression. As Hudson puts it:

if primary narcissism in the form of the “grandiose self” is not neutralized by reality testing, the grandiose self produces individuals who are sociopathic, arrogant, and lacking in regard for others. Similarly, if the psychological form of the “idealized parental ego” is not neutralized by reality testing, it can produce a condition of helpless defeatism, and narcissistic defeat can lead to reactions of rage and a wish to destroy the source of narcissistic injury.[14]

Again, there is some evidence to support this claim. The 1981 West German study sparked interest in this theory, since in addition to the findings already noted, supporters of the narcissistic rage theory found evidence that many of the terrorists had experienced major setbacks in their personal lives (for instance, performing poorly at school). Analysts like Post conclude that terrorism results from the rage that such failure induces. While he denies nowadays that there is a single terrorist “mindset”, in his earlier work he maintained that there was a relationship between terrorism and narcissistic abnormality.[15]

Authoritarian Personality Theory

One theory of political violence which has undergone something of a revival in recent years is the always controversial ‘authoritarian personality’ theory. Originally developed in the 1940s in the immediate context of the Nazi genocide during WWII and heavily influenced by the Freudian psychoanalytic theories dominant at the time, one especially powerful explanation stressed the nature of Germans themselves, and especially authoritarian child-rearing practices in the homes within which they had grown up. Narrow upbringing was directly responsible for the creation of intolerant, conservative thinking, according to the authors of the book The Authoritarian Personality. The book argued that the roots of fascism and intolerance are to be found in parental repression and authoritarianism.[16] The harsh child-rearing practices of some parents generate repressed fear and hostility, which eventually needs some outlet. As with frustration-aggression, this outlet comes in the form of displacement, usually taking the form of hostility towards minority groups and those who look “different” to the authoritarian individual.

Adorno and his colleagues also developed a scale—known as the “F scale”—which connected a variety of personality traits with a tendency to believe authoritarian propaganda. [17] More recently, Bob Altemeyer and his colleagues have revived the approach, although they have downplayed the psychoanalytical roots and emphasized social learning from the environment instead.[18] While the approach began life as a way of understanding genocide, it has broadened in focus under Altemeyer and his associates, so can it be used to understand terrorism? The fanaticism, rigidity and dogmatism of so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ terrorism seems like a  good candidate for use of the F-scale. Admittedly, there is less detailed research of terrorism from this perspective than there is from the viewpoint of the first two approaches. However, it has also been noted that the theory is culturally-specific and focused on Western states, especially the United States, and it is notably ‘liberal’ rather than ‘conservative’ as opposed to being the neutral approach it purports to be. As Kressel notes, the idealism and unconventional beliefs of Islamic terrorists do not really fit the authoritarian personality model.[19] Nevertheless, some aspects on the authoritarian personality seem to be reflected in religiously-inspired terror.

Common Problems With These Theories

At first sight, some of these approaches have an intuitive and seductive appeal, but in recent years the value of psychoanalytic approaches to understanding the psychology of terrorism has been increasingly questioned.[20] Sigmund Freud – who provided the basic assumptions on which the above approaches are based – argued that humans are motivated by a variety of motives of which they are unaware themselves (these are the realm of the “unconscious”). These desires are often repressed because they are socially unacceptable, such as the Oedipal complex. Of course, the fact that Freud has fallen out of favor within psychology should not lead us to reject his ideas out of hand; after all, in academic life, the popularity of theories waxes and wanes.  But there are more practical reasons why many who study the psychology of terrorism have become discontented with these approaches.

One issue has to do with psychological ‘reductionism’, the habit of reducing complex social and political phenomena to rather simplified psychological behaviors. Indeed, it is possible that advocates of all of these theories may be victims of the so-called ‘fundamental attribution error’. This is the tendency to overestimate the extent to which the behavior of the “other” is shaped by their dispositions rather than the circumstances they face. Again, however, terrorism is more of a method than anything else; it has been utilized for thousands of years, in a large variety of different geographical places.

A second problem common to all these theories is that they strongly suggest that terrorists are somehow mentally “abnormal.” In his analysis of the terrorists Hans-Joachim Klein and Carlos the Jackal, for instance, Konrad Kellen expresses the view that hatred of the father – whether conscious or unconscious – led both to rebel against authority or “father figures” in general. Their turn to terrorism, Kellen suggests, was merely the externalization onto public life of a private struggle in their own lives.[21]  But theories like this assume that “abnormal acts” can only be carried out by “abnormal individuals.” We should be sceptical of a mental disorder approach to terrorism, since the evidence we have suggests that most terrorists are psychologically normal and certainly not insane. As Andrew Silke suggests, the terrorists abnormality thesis is usually favored by those who have had the least amount of contact with actual terrorists; on the other hand, those have had considerable interaction with terrorists tend to argue the opposite view.[22]

A third problem is the weakness of evidence that any single “terrorist personality” exists. John Horgan regards the methodological approaches of those who claim to have uncovered such a single personality as “pitiful.”[23] This may overstate the case, but what studies there have been on this issue have come to different conclusions, and much research has found that terrorists in fact display no special character traits that distinguish them consistently from “ordinary” members of the population. The competing diagnoses and results that emerged from the West German study in and of themselves seem to undermine the claims made by the various theories. On the other hand, we do have evidence that many terrorists frequently find it difficult to kill and that their victims are incidental to the ends they are attempting to pursue.

A fourth problem is that an exclusive focus on personality downplays what is arguably the most powerful terrorist motivation: ideology. What all terrorists share is a commitment to some political goal, be it religious, nationalistic, or economic in nature. The beliefs of individual terrorists may be far more important than the so far rather fruitless search for a single terrorist personality. A focus on beliefs, moreover, is dispositionist in nature, and so perhaps what is wrong with the existing literature is not solely its focus on the individual per se, but an emphasis on the wrong factors.

The fifth difficulty is probably the most important. Advocates of the three approaches discussed above may be victims of what social scientists call the “fallacy of composition.” Indeed, we might question any approach that transplants a theory developed at one level of analysis to another level. All of the foregoing approaches were generated in the analysis of particular individuals, particularly the leaders of terrorist organizations. But does this mean that they can be applied the group as a whole? Put differently, there are difficulties involved when moving from the individual-level (at which frustration–aggression theory operates, for example) to the social or group one. In related vein, the fallacy of composition is the failure to study the broader population in which an individual is situated. Narcissism, for instance, is probably rather common within the general population, but not all narcissists adopt the lifestyle of the terrorist.[24] Indeed, narcissists seem especially unlikely to become suicide terrorists, for instance, since their sense of self-worth is too great. Hudson also notes that the theory “appears to be contradicted by the increasing number of terrorists who are well-educated professionals, such as chemists, engineers, and physicists.”[25] This is also a major problem for other theories which argue that terrorism is the externalization of frustration in one’s personal life, such as frustration–aggression theory. Clearly, something else must be at work in the process of becoming a terrorist that goes beyond any simple personality trait.

A Better Route: The Power of ‘Situation’

Psychology as a field addresses not only the idea that individual predispositions drive behavior, but also the notion that certain situational factors may exert a powerful effect on that behavior. It is tempting to conclude that highly abnormal actions must be committed by highly abnormal individuals, as we have noted. But there are reasons to cast doubt on this conclusion beyond those we have already discussed. For one thing, the literature on other forms of political extremism suggests that situational forces can compel us to behave in ways contrary to our own professed beliefs or values. “Ordinary” or “banal” people like Adolf Eichmann were responsible for truly appalling atrocities.[26] If psychologically “normal” individuals are capable of committing such actions under the right situational inducements, it should not surprise us that equally normal individuals might be capable of committing similarly outrageous atrocities in the name of some ideological cause. The subjects in the Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford experiment and Stanley Milgram’s ‘obedience’ experiments were similarly normal and everyday. But Milgram’s analysis in Obedience to Authority and the analysis of the psychology of evil in The Lucifer Effect both strongly imply that there is a very thin line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, a line that most of us are capable of crossing far more readily that we usually think.[27]

We also have evidence that terrorists feel that they have no choice but to commit the acts they perform, a factor which also pushes us towards situationism. They may feel ‘trapped’ by the situation they face and compelled to resort to political violence in order to achieve their objectives. Taylor and Quayle, for example, found in interviews with actual terrorists some years ago that they often feel that violence is “an inevitable response” to some external threat.[28] In at least some circumstances, there may be few alternatives to terrorism available. In repressive political systems, for instance, terrorism may in fact be the sole course of action available to those who seek change. As Fareed Zakaria suggests, for many young radicals Osama Bin Laden constituted a far more appealing role model than the Saudi monarchy.[29] So if psychological-situational factors matter as well, what specific theories might be most promising to apply to the study of terrorism? For reasons of time and space, we will examine the potential applicability of just two such approaches here: social identity theory and groupthink. The first is popular within the study of nationalism, while the second has primarily found an expression within the study of foreign policy decision-making.

Social Identity Theory

One factor which seems common to all terrorism is the presence of “us” versus “them”-type thinking. The paradox of terrorist behavior is that while terrorists may frequently dehumanize members of the out-group, they identify quite intensely with their own in-group. As Robins and Post note, “if one strips away the national contextual substance, the form of terrorist rhetoric is strikingly uniform. It is “us versus them”: “us”, the terrorists, fighting for what they claim is a righteous cause against “them”, the corrupt establishment. The terrorists claim that once this corrupt establishment is destroyed, a better society will arise”.[30]

Robins and Post ascribe this tendency mostly to the character of individuals, the components of the group. “Many drawn to the path of terrorism have a paranoid disposition and find the externalizing rhetoric attractive”, they suggest.[31] But there is a more popular theory in psychology which not only accounts for this feature, but shows just how easy it is to create the situational inducements which give rise to it: social identity theory. This has become perhaps the most common way of understanding the psychology of nationalism—offering insights into both the social and political cohesion that holds nations together, and the processes that bring groups into conflict,[32] but it can readily be applied to any sense of psychological difference. British social psychologist Henri Tajfel and his colleagues discovered in the 1970s that hostility towards outgroups and favoritism towards one’s own group can occur in the absence of any “rational” reason to discriminate. Social identity theory suggests, in other words, that conflict can occur where the ingroup has absolutely nothing to gain from competing with the outgroup.[33]

Tajfel used complete strangers as his subjects, and also randomly assigned them into groups for similar reasons. He also deliberately divided his subjects along quite absurd lines, such as their supposed artistic preferences. In the best-known series of studies, participants were asked to express their opinions about indistinguishable abstract paintings by artists they had never heard of and were then randomly assigned to a group that preferred either the “Paul Klee style” or the “Wassily Kandinsky style”.[34] Having divided up his subjects using these arbitrary points, the two groups were never allowed to meet. To Tajfel’s own surprise, however, members of each group still displayed a marked favoritism towards their own ingroup and an equally pronounced hostility to the outgroup. In this ‘minimal group paradigm’, Tajfel and his colleague John Turner found that “trivial, ad hoc intergroup categorization leads to in-group favoritism and discrimination against the out-group.” Faced with the task of allocating financial resources between the two groups, for instance, the ingroup bizarrely chose to penalize the outgroup rather than receive more money itself.[35]

Clearly, social identity theory will not suffice on its own to ‘explain’ terrorism. Most obviously, not all who experience a sense of difference will dehumanize the out group to the extent that terrorists do. But competing social identities may provide insights into the sense of difference or which is pervasive within the terrorist group, a force that may be greatly intensified by the group’s leader or other factors. This is at the very least an underexploited area within the study of terrorism, even if other factors are clearly at play too. We need to better understand why some groups dehumanize “others” to such a forceful extent. The idea that “our cause is just” fulfills a basic human need in all of us, for instance. In terrorism this is paired with a powerful sense of victimhood that enhances the feeling that we are right and seems to justify retribution and revenge. Terrorist activity probably helps some people to find meaning in their lives as well.


A second feature of terrorist groups is their unshaking belief that their own position constitutes ‘the one true way’. But this feature has been studied as well in a psychological context, most notably perhaps in the theory of groupthink, in which a group convinces itself that it has reached an unshakably ‘correct’ approach. Although this perspective has usually been used as an approach to U.S. decision-making – the term was invented by Irving Janis in his book of the same name, and was used by the U.S. 9/11 Commission to understand why American authorities did not act to prevent that event until it was too late – it shows some promise as an approach to group decision-making in any context, including the tendency of members of terrorist organizations to ‘think alike’.[36]

Social psychologist Janis defined the groupthink phenomenon as a two-step process, in which a group reaches a premature consensus and then becomes closed to outside ideas, and he holds up the decisions which preceded the 1961 intervention at the Bay of Pigs and the 1965 escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as especially clear cases in point. In Janis’s words, groupthink is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”[37] A high level of group cohesion can develop, for instance, where the members have known each other for years and/or think too much alike, so that other ideas are never voiced. While such a group can make reasonably effective decisions, it can become prey to this pathology where members of the group come to prize “concurrence-seeking” over the full and rational consideration of all available courses of action. He contrasts this with vigilant decision-making—in which decision-makers do rigorously consider all available options—and holds up the Cuban missile crisis as a notable instance of a supposedly ‘superior’ process.[38]

According to Janis, groupthink has a number of “antecedent conditions”, in addition to the central factor of high group cohesiveness:

  • Insulation of the group from outside advice—the group does not seek or permit outsiders to offer their own opinions.
  • Aggressive and opinionated leadership—the leader makes his or her own opinions so evident at the outset that meaningful discussion does not take place.
  • A lack of norms requiring methodical procedures—there is no tradition within the group of encouraging the full consideration of options in a methodical way.
  • Homogeneity of members’ backgrounds/ideology—most members of the group come from a similar social and educational background, and consequently think in similar fashion.
  • High levels of stress—the group is challenged by a problem that induces high levels of stress, such as the need to reach a decision overnight.
  • Temporary but low self-esteem.[39]

How do we know when groupthink is present? Janis identifies eight symptoms which can be used as diagnostic criteria:

  • An illusion of invulnerability—the group develops excessive optimism, which then encourages risk-taking.
  • Collective rationalization—members discount warnings and fail to reconsider their core assumptions.
  • A belief in the inherent morality of the group—members come to believe in the “moral rightness” of their cause and become blind to the ethical consequences of their decisions.
  • Stereotyped views of outgroups—the group develops an excessively simplified and negative view of the “enemy.”
  • Direct pressure is exerted on dissenters—members come under heavy social pressure not to dissent from the group’s opinions.
  • Self-censorship—members fail to express their own doubts about the wisdom of the course to be taken.
  • An illusion of unanimity—the majority view is assumed to be unanimous, although in reality some members of the group may not share a belief in what they see as a ‘rush to judgment’.
  • the emergence of self-appointed “mindguards”—members appear who take it upon themselves to protect the group and its leader from any dissenting views that might be voiced.[40]

This approach has proven controversial, and it presupposes the view that decision-makers have chosen the wrong course of action, a position which not all theorists of terrorist behavior will agree with in all cases. Testing this theory is admittedly difficult too, for a familiar reason; terrorists do not often obligingly ‘throw open their doors’ to social scientists. There may also be a ‘pro-Western’ bias to the approach, in the sense that it is rarely applied to countries other than the United States. There is no reason to suppose that only Westerners can fall prey to the above defects, however. In particular, we might expect “aggressive and opinionated leadership” to prevail in terrorist organizations where the leader is especially revered and/or occupies an almost ‘Godlike’ status. “Stereotyped views of outgroups” and “a belief in the group’s inherent morality” are also especially likely to be dominant here, especially since the members of terrorist groups see themselves as serving some ‘higher’ purpose. Those who harbor doubts may face severe censure or even death if they speak out.

We can see the potential operation of groupthink especially well when we look at terrorist group decisions which did not work out well for the decision-makers involved. For instance, the decision to destroy the original World Trade Center Towers arguably worked out poorly for Al Qaeda, leading to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and ultimately to the killing of its leader, Osama Bin Laden, at the hands of a U.S. military team. Even more strikingly, the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) decision to bomb Warrington in 1993, and the even more ill-judged Omagh bombing in 1998, proved to be the final nails in the organization’s coffin. Both led to a noticeable decline in wider political support for the organization, as a result of the seemingly senseless and irrational nature of the attacks (many Roman Catholics were killed or injured, although the IRA claimed to acting in their interests). When a terrorist organization ceases to be active – as the Provisional IRA mainly has – its leaders become more open and accessible, at least in theory, and some sort of analysis of their decision-making becomes easier to do.


As Louise Richardson points out, “most psychologists agree that group, organizational, and social psychology are more helpful than individual psychology in explaining terrorist behavior”.[41] Given this simple fact, it is regrettable indeed that when the topic of the psychology of terrorism comes up, most analysts think of the kind of theories with which we began this chapter as opposed to those with which we ended. But the social dynamics of terrorist activity are probably more critical than approaches which look for some kind of abnormality in the perpetrators. Human beings are social actors, and we are influenced by what others think and feel. While there are certainly conditions under which the individual matters more than group pressures, various clues and indicators suggest that the future study of terrorist behavior will benefit more from a focus on situationism than it will from dispositionism.


[1] See for instance Robert Robins and Jerrold Post, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred (London: Yale University Press, 1997), p.103. They concluded that narcissistic rage theory lay behind the terrorist actions.

[2] See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p.144.

[3] Ibid, p.322.

[4] Various examples could be given here, but see for instance Paul Wilkinson, ‘Terrorism’, in Myriam Cavelty and Victor Mauer (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Security Studies (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012).

[5] Jerrold Post and Stephen Walker, ‘Assessing Political Leaders in Theory and Practice’, in Post (ed.), The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003), p.410.

[6] John Horgan, “The Search for The Terrorist Personality,” in Andrew Silke (ed.), Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and Its Consequences (Chichester, U.K.: Jon Wiley, 2003).

[7] Rex Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist And Why? A report prepared under an interagency agreement by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.: The Division, 1999), p.17.

[8] See http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/terrorism/lite/expert.html.

[9] Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing The Threat (New York: Random House, 2007), p.41.

[10] See for instance Jerrold Post, “Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist Behavior as a Product of Psychological Forces,” in Walter Reich (ed.), Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States Of Mind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World: The Psychology of Political Behavior (New York: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[11] John Dollard, Leonard Doob, Neal Miller, O.H. Mowrer, and Robert Sears, Frustration and Aggression (New Haven, CT: Institute of Human Relations, 1939). This theory is also often attributed to Leonard Berkowitz, “Some Aspects of Observed Aggression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12; 359–69, 1965 and to Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970).

[12] Robins and Post, Political Paranoia, p.104.

[13] Richard Pearlstein, The Mind of the Political Terrorist (Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1991).

[14] Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism, p.17.

[15] Robins and Post, Political Paranoia, p.103.

[16] Theodore Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950).

[17] Neil Kressel, Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror (Cambridge, <A: Westview Press, 2002).

[18] See for instance Bob Altemeyer, Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right-Wing Authoritarianism (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1988).

[19] Kressel, Mass Hate, p.199.

[20] Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism, p.17.

[21] Konrad Kellen, On Terrorists and Terrorism (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1982).

[22] Andrew Silke, “Becoming a Terrorist,” in Silke, (ed.), Terrorists, Victims and Society, p.32.

[23] Horgan, “The Search for The Terrorist Personality,” p.10.

[24] Hudson, The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism, p.27.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)

[27] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper & Row, 1974) and Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007).

[28] Maxwell Taylor and Ethel Quayle, Terrorist Lives (London and Washington, D.C.: Brasseys, 1994), p.90.

[29] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993).

[30] Robins and Post, Political Paranoia, p.102. Terrorists are usually quite utopian or idealist in this sense.

[31] Ibid, p.103.

[32] See the summary in James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.238–44.

[33] See for instance Henri Tajfel and John Turner, ‘The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior’, in John Jost and Jim Sidanius (eds.), Political Psychology: Key Readings (New York and Hove: Psychology Press, 2004) and Tajfel, Social Identity and Intergroup Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

[34] Waller, Becoming Evil, p.241

[35] Tajfel and Turner, ‘The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior’, p.282.

[36] Irving Janis, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston, MA: Houghton Miffl in, 1972), later published as Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1982).

[37] Janis, Groupthink, p.9.

[38] Ibid., pp.132–58.

[39] Ibid., pp.176–77.

[40] Ibid., pp.174–75.

[41] Richardson, What Terrorists Want, p.49.

This paper was published in Al-Mesbar’s 125th Monthly Book The Psychology of Terrorism: Individuals and Terrorist Groups.

*Dr. David Patrick Houghton Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Navy War College

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