The psychology of terrorism

The field of psychology has taken quite a hit lately.  Since the true test of scientific veracity is replication (if I make a hypothesis about a phenomenon based on an experiment and no one can get the same results based on the same methodology the hypothesis is weak), a recent report that slightly more than one-third of a series of studies can be replicated does not bode well (here is a summary of the crisis).

I am not a psychologist but must confess that I have often wondered at the accuracy and applicability of some experiments.  Extrapolation is always a danger, whether it is from small data sets to a more general population or from lab conditions to the real world.  Some findings clearly seem counter intuitive (it should be noted however that counter intuitiveness is not a reliable reason for rejecting a theory: it is counter intuitive to most of us that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, but as Galileo said of the earth “Eppur si muove”).

So what do we make of this upheaval in the study of the human mind and behaviour?  I suggest that we need to remind ourselves that we are complex thinking machines and that our actions and decisions cannot easily be reduced to simplified modeling.  And this goes especially for those seeking to understand the psychology of terrorism.

Examining violent extremism from a psychological standpoint suffers from several serious disadvantages.  First and foremost, as terrorism is a relatively infrequent event (in the West at least – it is unfortunately all too common in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria of late) it is difficult to get a large enough data sample on which to make hypotheses.  It is here that trying to draw broad lessons from narrow input is very unhelpful.  Secondly, the data itself is usually incomplete.  We often know very little about terrorists and their backgrounds and much less about why they decided to engage in violent extremism.  And lastly, we cannot, for obvious ethical reasons, run experiments on terrorism.  True, Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s obedience findings did show that people can become violent in the right conditions, but these could not be carried out today.

We are thus left with the challenge of trying to come up with useful generalisations in a very challenging study environment.  Complicating this is the common view that all terrorists are “crazy” (false, actually).  Furthermore, is there a personality type that is more prone to send people down the terrorist path?  We don’t know and it will be hard to find out given the obstacles outlined in the previous paragraph.  In the end, we are very far from any model that will help agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP whittle down the pool of potential terrorists.

And does it really matter?  If we determine that a particular individual who has engaged in terrorism does suffer from a known psychological illness, does it make a difference?  Maybe not.  In the recent sentencing hearing of convicted Via train terrorist Chiheb Esseghaier the judge has noted that his probable schizophrenia does not remove his ability to know what he was doing (in reading the psychological testimony, however, I am struck that some aspects of Mr. Esseghaier’s “illness” are nothing more than religious fervour).

As in all sub-fields of the terrorism research world, more work is needed.  I commend the scholars undertaking this study but do not envy the challenges facing them.  I do hope, however, that they will be sincere in presenting their findings and not make broad claims on small data sets.

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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