The Psychology of Terrorism

What is terrorism?  Depends on who you ask.  For some, it might be an act of terror, designed to endorse political or religious beliefs; an act of cowardice by the weaker power in a conflict; a tactic, a strategy and a sacred duty; a way to prove your dedication to your spiritual or religious beliefs.  However, one thing is for certain: terrorism involves violence, fear and control of the masses.  Psychologists have been trying to study for years what exactly drives people to terrorism, it’s difficult though, to view it as an individual process.  Terrorism is caused by groups of people fighting for a purpose, therefore psychologists have decided to study the interactions between the group and their target population, or their claimed principles.  Political psychologist, Dr. John Horgan, conducted a study by interviewing 60 former terrorists and found a few characteristics that might describe people who are willing to be part of terrorist’s radical activities:

  • 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 inmoral.
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewars such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.

These are individuals who could feel the need to lash out at the people, the country and the world whom they believe rejected them.  Islamic terrorism, for example, could be a way to defend the traditional beliefs that adhere to the conservative Islam religion and who are often criticized by others who live in more liberal countries.  However, this is all very subjective, there are many arguments by other Muslims who say that Islam in no way condones violent acts towards innocent people and do not support terrorism at all.   Consequently, we can’t attribute terrorism to any specific religion.  Sometimes people who have nothing to do with these religious or political movements, join them, which brings us to this question: why did they get involved?  Based on an interview by John Horgan, a former terrorist said that the people who recruited him glorified their cause and the roles they took in it.  It seemed glamorous and the feeling of camaraderie was attractive, which is why many young people with impressionable minds might join these movements to feel they are worth something or that they are doing something to make a real change in the world.  Anyhow, many have found that these movements weren’t what they seemed at first and did not agree with the values that they later found out their superiors had. 

Psychologists are trying to find ways to discourage terrorism by promoting peace with a new initiative called “de-radicalization”, which in many Islamic countries fosters dialogue between imprisoned terrorists or other radical groups and Muslim clerics who debate the meaning of Islam teachings and dismisses violence as a way to defend their beliefs.  They also offer help for their families and show concern for their well-being.  A good way to prevent people joining radical terrorists groups could be developing more specific empowerment programs designed to teach people how to make a positive change in their communities and that include the purpose and values that these people wish to support.


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  • Horgan, John. "Walking Away from Terrorism" (Routledge, 2009).
  • Horgan, John, "Leaving Terrorism Behind" (Routledge, 2008).
  • Moghaddam, F.M. (2007). Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations: Psychological Implications for Democracy in Global Context. Washington, DC: APA.
  • Pyszczynski, T.A., Solomon, S. & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the Wake of 911: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC: APA.
  • Moghaddam, F.M. & Marsella, A.J. (Ed.). (2003). Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences and Interventions. Washington, DC: APA.