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Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Psychology of Extremism – Are Terrorists Crazy?

When an act of terrorism is reported, the question of what kind of person would do such a thing usually follows. People question what kind of psychological make-up must a person have to even contemplate causing the devastation concurrent with a terrorist attack. Are extremists '
crazy?


The psychological understanding of terrorism is an area of developing research, but the present state is somewhat narrow and limited by factors including underdeveloped theories, and a lack of access and empirical evidence. However, three key approaches have emerged: the psychoanalytic, cognitive, and social. 
The first theory seems to be reflected by the understanding of a large proportion of society; namely that a particular disorder is to blame for terrorist behaviour. It is proposed that terrorists are psychologically different from 'us' and some have taken solace in the image of terrorists as psychopaths- 'mad' and irrational genetic anomalies.

However, one only has to look at the precise planning and execution of the events of 9/11 to see how flawed the theory is. The individuals responsible were far from impulsive and irresponsible, which are the hallmarks of a psychopath (McCauley). The actions of the bombers were radically inconsistent with the psychopathic personality. Research has also revealed that terrorists are in fact psychologically stronger and more stable than the common criminal, while the outstanding characteristic of terrorist psychology is normality. Sadly there appears to be no typical terrorist personality to soothe the population.

The cognitive approach is spearheaded by the Rational Choice Theory, which theorises that terrorism is a wilful decision - like any other life choice - made for political and/or strategic purposes. Violence is often claimed to be a last resort, which implies rationality and counters the psychoanalytic approach. However, this theory does not always apply on an individual level as the stakes are so high (especially in the case of martyrs), unless the benefits are psychological.

The approach that most closely resembles my own belief  proposes social factors as the main driving force of why terrorists carry out these acts. The lure of the group is undeniable. Power and a positive group image is projected, and value and emotional significance are attached to their goals. Members see themselves as superior and hold a dichotomous world view of 'us' and 'them'. In-group pressure and various sociological factors also facilitate extremist development (Silke, 2008). 

It appears no single psychological theory, and no single field of academic study can fully explain the motivations of terrorists. There is no single root cause of terrorism, and a range of factors facilitate the process. There are significant gaps in terrorism research, and this lack of long-term academic investment needs to be addressed, as does analysis driven by incidents and short-term policy.

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