The Psychology of Terrorism

Note: This article attempts to understand the psychology of terrorist organizations and its members by applying the basic principles of psychology. This article is not based on interviews or research conducted by the writer, thus could contain inconsistencies.

We live in a world where terror runs rampant; where every form of media is swarmed with news of extremist organizations committing acts against humanity, in an attempt to increase their power and legitimacy. A world so fragmented that we have forgotten how to coexist. And thus, we must ask the question: How can any ordinary individual commit such malicious acts, with no remorse? How can decisions made by such large organizations be so reckless?

Terrorist organizations, at the base of it, are nothing more than extremist groups, thus they can be easily understood by applying the basic principles of group processes. These organizations are highly cohesive, due to the common motives and ideologies shared by their members. This extreme cohesiveness highlights a strong social identity and creates an in-group bias, due to which the members see anyone who is not part of the group as different, and gives rise to strong feelings of “us” versus “them”. The phenomenon of groupthink given by Irving Janis is common in groups with high cohesiveness. This phenomenon explains how cohesiveness interferes with decision making, and how the desire for unanimity “overrides the motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”, which results in irrational decisions. As each member believes that all other members agree upon a particular decision or policy, they do not wish to show a dissenting opinion for the fear of harming group-cohesiveness or being unpopular. Research also shows that groups are more likely to take extreme decisions than individuals alone; this tendency to take extreme decisions refers to the phenomenon of group polarisation. This phenomenon occurs due to the interactions between the members. As members of a group interact, their initial negative attitude or prejudiced beliefs get strengthened in the company of like-minded people as they hear more arguments supporting their viewpoint and feel that their view is validated by the public. These phenomena when understood in the context of terrorism, shed light on how and why extremist organizations are able to make such reckless, extreme, and malevolent decisions.

Speaking of individuals that constitute these organizations, it makes one wonder what drives these people to commit such inhumane acts with no guilt. The principles of social cognition and social influence play a major role in understanding and determining the behaviour of such individuals. After becoming a member of these extremist organizations, individuals show conformity to all the group norms, even if they do not agree with all of them. This happens as breaking free of these norms can result in disapproval and even death in some cases. All instructions and orders come from higher authority in the organization. This authority generally possesses symbols of status and power that people find difficult to resist, thus showing obedience. The authority gradually increases command to greater degrees, and initial obedience binds the individual to further commitment. An experiment conducted by Milgram on obedience showed how ordinary individuals were willing to harm innocent people if ordered by someone in authority. This happens as people do not feel accountable for their acts, and the responsibility of their actions is passed on to the authority giving the orders. After the occurrence of an act of terror like a bombing or a massacre, the members of the group are bound to face a dilemma, about whether what they’re doing is right or not. This leads to conflicting thoughts, and as the theory of cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger states, if two conflicting cognitions about an attitude exist, it makes the individual logically uncomfortable and triggers a change in one of the cognitions, in the direction of consonance. In the case of terrorists, after committing such an act, they will either realize the shortcomings of their beliefs and change them, or their belief system will be strengthened because they’ll feel that they wouldn’t have committed those acts if their beliefs weren’t righteous and just.

By applying these psychological principles, it becomes easier to understand the whys and hows of the behaviour of these terrorist organizations. Group dynamics and individual cognition together give a comprehensive view on terrorism, and aid us in better overcoming it, because understanding terrorism is the first step towards eliminating it.

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