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The Psychology Behind Terrorism

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Terrorism is a complex phenomenon with no single root cause. While poverty, lack of education, and perceived grievances may create conditions conducive for terrorism, most people in such circumstances do not become terrorists.

Psychological factors like mental illness or personality traits also fail to fully explain terrorism. According to one study, mental illness is not more prevalent among terrorists compared to the general population. Rather, experts point to a combination of motivations – both rational and irrational –  that drive people to commit terrorist acts.

These can include a search for meaning, desire for social status, moral outrage over perceived injustice, and belief in the legitimacy of violence to achieve ideological, political, or religious goals. But the quest for significance looms large. As some psychologists put it: “The need to matter is a key driver of terrorist radicalisation.”

Becoming radicalised through social contagion

While motivations are complex, radicalisation often occurs socially through tight-knit groups. Terrorists frequently radicalize together with friends or family in small groups that reinforce shared narratives and worldviews.

This “echo chamber” effect normalises extremism through social contagion. Once part of a terrorist group, new members are pressured to prove their commitment through extreme actions. Terrorist organisations exploit vulnerable individuals by providing a sense of significance, certainty, and moral purpose.

Charismatic leaders use persuasive psychological techniques like black-and-white thinking to convince followers that violence is necessary and justified. They frequently justify terrorism by distorting religious scriptures or political ideologies.

According to one analysis, feeling uncertain increases people’s need for such extreme high-entitativity groups. Radicalisation is thus better understood as a group process rather than simply individual pathology.

The Allure of Apocalyptic Narratives

Apocalyptic beliefs are a reoccurring narrative for justifying terrorism. Many terrorists are inspired by the idea of an epic “cosmic war” between good and evil. Belief that the world is collapsing and only the most extreme actions can save it distorts cost-benefit calculations that normally inhibit violence. This generates a type of “moral disengagement” where even mass killing can feel justified.

Apocalyptic narratives provide a sense of historical purpose and can give followers a feeling of power and control amidst chaos. For alienated individuals, becoming part of something bigger than themselves is deeply alluring. Unfortunately, this sense of meaning and excitement makes apocalyptic narratives – and the groups that espouse them – profoundly dangerous. As experts note, countering apocalyptic narratives is critical for reducing the appeal of terrorist ideologies that exploit them.

Promoting resilience and inclusion

Since radicalisation develops through social dynamics, experts recommend fostering inclusive communities as an antidote. Shared identities that transcend divisions of ethnicity, religion, or nationality make people feel valued and heard, reducing vulnerability to extremist groups promising significance.

Promoting fair and ethical leadership in government, media, and civil society also supports healthy public discourse that does not force people to extremes. Bolstering critical thinking helps individuals question simplistic narratives and resist manipulation. story.

Perhaps most importantly, cultivating resilience allows people to cope with uncertainty in healthy ways. Resilience arises from connections to family, friends, community groups, and cultural traditions. Such social resources provide meaning, hope, and emotional support to weather life’s difficulties for individuals and communities alike. Robust resilience thus inoculates societies against fear, alienation, and the misguided search for meaning that so tragically feeds terrorism’s violent aims.




Amelia Turing is a freelance writer with a particulat interest in social and cultural psychology.

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