Psychology and radicalisation

I’ve been noticing a lot more coverage of terrorism and radicalisation in the pages of New Scientist lately.  On the one hand I find this curious since the magazine, which I have enjoyed reading since the early 1980s, usually includes articles on the harder sciences: physics, astronomy and biology.  True it does treat the somewhat softer fields of study like psychology and linguistics on occasion, but it is hard to see why a science periodical will devote space to terrorism.

In another way it should not come as a surprise.  Terrorism studies have ballooned from a niche intellectual market to a subject of much wider interest, especially in the post 9/11 period.  Contributions from a wealth of disciplines may help us to better understand what is going on and provide hints on better ways to deal with the phenomenon.

In the New Scientist issue of 14 November I came across an article entitled “Roots of brutality” (see it here), in which science writer Laura Spinney talks of terrorism as a subset of evil and how advances in neuroscience are giving us insights into human decision making and why we kill.   There are also results from experimental psychology.

Setting aside the concerns over the problems associated with replicating the findings in many such psychological experiments, I found the following items of interest, even if I did not agree with the opinions of the scientists involved.

There is now apparently something called Syndrome E (“e” for evil) which entails that the old belief that violence occurs when the more primitive brain takes over is wrong.  New research shows that it is the “higher” brain that runs the show and it is this part of our brain that is responsible for acts of serious violence.  This occurs when the higher brain “goes into overdrive” and can be seen in a series of symptoms or common traits, including:

  • obsessive beliefs
  • rapid desensitisation to violence
  • obedience to authority
  • perceiving group members as virtuous

We certainly see #1 and #4 in cases of violent radicalisation so maybe this construct is helpful.

Another researcher suggests that in people with common psychiatric disorders such as addiction the higher brain downplays the cost-to-benefit ratio and leads to bad decisions.  This can be extrapolated to killing and these “maladaptive habits” can be identified and treated, says Ann Grabiel of MIT.

Famed terrorist scholar Scott Atran begs to differ.  Terrorists are not the “other” he argues and evil is not pathology.  Anyone, he claims, can do bad things given the right context (full disclosure: I have been saying that for years).   Group cohesion and adherence to a leader are more important in this matter and context is everything.

The two sides are at loggerheads. Atran says we have to stop asking why and focus on what draws people to extreme organisations such as IS.  The E-Syndrome people want us to identify the signs of radicalisation early and act sooner rather than later.  With that I have no argument.  Maybe the two sides are really saying the same thing, albeit with slightly different starting points.

In any event, in light of the events in Paris and San Bernardino lately we will undoubtedly see much more research on terrorism and radicalisation.  While contributions from all sides should be welcomed, we need to judge the results and implications carefully.  We have already spent trillions on counter terrorism since 9/11, not always wisely.  Spending more money equally as unwisely on the newest theory is not a good idea.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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