After a terror attack, amidst the shock and sadness, there is simple incomprehension: how could anyone be so brutal, so inhuman? In Nature Human Behaviour, Sandra Baez and her colleagues offer rare insight based on their tests of 66 incarcerated paramilitary terrorists in Colombia, who had murdered an average of 33 victims each. The terrorists completed measures of their intelligence, aggression, emotion recognition, and crucially, their moral judgments.
A timely study published in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression has looked into the crucial role played by the friends of would-be terrorists, in preventing their descent into radicalism.
Michael Williams and his colleagues began by interviewing over 150 law enforcement professionals, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of various faiths in Los Angeles and Washington DC about who they thought was best placed to notice and raise concerns about a person who was considering violent extremism.
The official programmes to counter violent extremism in these neighbourhoods are well-established with communication links between local police, social services, faith-based organisations, psychological services, and so on. However, a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.
A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:
“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”
Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.
To follow-up on this issue of fear about the consequences of raising the alarm, the researchers interviewed more community members and law enforcement professionals in the DC area, specifically in Montgomery County, Maryland, looking for factors that might exacerbate people’s fears of seeking help about a friend on the path to violent extremism. They found evidence that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm. Interviewees spoke of concerns that the at-risk friend might feel embarrassed or looked-down upon. Another key factor was how much interviewees identified with the at-risk person – the more they identified with them, the less willing they’d be to intervene – “just because you want to protect your own,” said one police officer who was also a parent.
Williams and his team cautioned that this was exploratory, qualitative research – they sought out evidence to back up their predictions about the factors likely to be relevant. “Such findings warrant further testing,” they said, “ideally via experimental methods.” But the results do point to important practical steps, for example the need to “empower”, support and provide reassurance to gatekeepers (i.e. the friends of at-risk would-be extremists) and the need to “develop the curricula and protocols for how” people should respond when they’re concerned that a friend is being radicalised.
Williams, M., Horgan, J., & Evans, W. (2015). The critical role of friends in networks for countering violent extremism: toward a theory of vicarious help-seeking Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-21 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2015.1101147
The psychology of violent extremism – digested
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!
In the wake of a report published yesterday into the CIA’s use of torture, many people are shocked and appalled. Yet one defence of the practice remains popular – “the ticking time bomb scenario”.
This is the idea that torture is justified if a suspect knows the location of bomb in a public place, and many lives would be saved if he or she were coerced into telling authorities the location in time for it to be deactivated. The new Senate Intelligence Committee report describes how the ticking time bomb scenario was in fact used by the CIA to defend its use of torture or “enhanced interrogation”.
The ticking time bomb scenario is usually presented as a “utilitarian” argument for the moral good of torture in certain circumstances, when one person’s suffering is preferable to the deaths of many. Some commenters have gone as far as claiming that most people endorse torture in the ticking bomb situation.
A new study puts this to the test. Joseph Spino and Denise Cummins surveyed hundreds of people online asking them for their views about the acceptability and appropriateness of torturing a suspect in variations of the classic ticking bomb scenario. In particular the researchers were interested in whether people’s views vary according to changes in the “hidden assumptions” with which the scenario is loaded.
The researchers found that people’s endorsement of torturing a suspect is reduced when they are told that torture is likely to be ineffective (which, by the way, is true), and when they are told other interrogative methods are available. The researchers also found that people’s support for torture increased when they were told the suspect was a terrorist, or that the suspect was guilty of actually planting the bomb. People’s increased support in this context was not because they thought the suspect was more likely to hold information about the bomb. This suggests that the participants’ endorsement of torture was based on retribution, rather than being a cool utilitarian judgment.
Spino and Cummins said their results show that people’s support for torture in the ticking time bomb situation depends on a “highly idealised” and “highly unrealistic” set of assumptions being met. Moreover, their finding that people’s support for torture is influenced by the identity and the culpability of the suspect shows that the practice is often endorsed as a form of punishment, not as a way to extract information. Taken altogether the researchers conclude their findings “cast serious doubt on the use of ticking time bomb scenarios as an argument for legalized torture”.
Spino, J., & Cummins, D. (2014). The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 5 (4), 543-563 DOI: 10.1007/s13164-014-0199-y
Torturing the brain. On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’ (pdf)
The British Psychological Society’s response to the new Senate report.
Psychologist magazine news story on the Senate report.
The psychology of violent extremism – digested
Today the UK and its allies are at war with an extremist group based in Syria and Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State (IS; a name rejected by mainstream Muslim organisations). The group declared a caliphate in June this year and is seeking to expand its territory.
Amnesty International has accused IS of war crimes including ethnic cleansing, torture, abductions, sexual violence and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Prime Minister Cameron has branded the group “evil” and says they “pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology.”
Many of the fighters of the Islamic State are Western citizens. Indeed, this week there were reports that a fourth jihadist from Portsmouth, England, has died fighting for the Islamic State.
Never has it been more urgent that we understand why people are drawn to extremist beliefs and to violent extremist organisations. Here the Research Digest provides a brief overview of the psychological research and theories that help explain the lure of extremism. Continue reading “The psychology of violent extremism – digested”
|After viewing images of terrorists, people reported feelings of anger and fear|
How readers’ emotions are affected by media reports of terrorist attacks depends on the photos used to accompany the story. That’s according to an analysis by Aarti Iyer and colleagues, who say these different emotional reactions in turn lead to support for different government policies.
Over two-hundred British adults (aged 18 to 68; 92 women), many based in London, read a news summary of the London terrorist bombings that occurred on July 7, 2005. Afterwards, the participants were split into two groups – one group was shown photographs that displayed the terrorist attackers, including head-shots and security camera footage. The other group was shown photographs displaying victims of the attacks, including wounded people and distressed bystanders.
Participants who viewed the images of terrorists subsequently reported feeling a stronger sense of injustice (than those who saw the victims), and felt more of a sense that the terrorists were dangerous and threatening. In terms of emotions, viewing the images of the terrorists was associated with higher levels of fear and anger. In contrast, participants who saw the images of the victims were afterwards more conscious of people suffering, and they tended to report feeling more sympathy.
Although a direct comparison found no difference between the two participant groups, in terms of their subsequent support for various government terrorism policies, Iyer and her team claim there were indirect effects of the two image conditions. According to the researchers’ analysis, viewing images of the terrorists increased levels of anger and fear, and in turn these emotions were associated with more support for aggressive counter-terrorism and more negotiation, respectively. In contrast, seeing images of victims increased feelings of sympathy, which was associated with more support for policies aimed at helping victims.
“Given that images of terrorism may be easily used (and abused) to manipulate public opinion, it is … vital that media editors and policy makers better understand the psychological processes underlying the phenomenon,” the researchers said. They admitted that much more research is needed in this area, and they acknowledged that in reality readers and viewers are often exposed to a mixture of images. But despite this caution, Iyer and her team also wrote that their findings demonstrate “the powerful impact of media images in shaping individuals’ emotional and political responses to terrorism…”
Readers of a sceptical persuasion may not be so convinced. The path analysis used in this research can only demonstrate correlations between measured factors – causality, and its true direction from one factor to another, has not been proven. Ultimately, the two groups of participants did not differ in their support for different government policies. This research was also unable to explain why some people responded to images of the terrorists with anger, and others with fear.
Iyer, A., Webster, J., Hornsey, M., & Vanman, E. (2014). Understanding the power of the picture: the effect of image content on emotional and political responses to terrorism Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (7), 511-521 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12243
Terrorists seek to subdue and coerce their targets, but ironically they may end up doing just the opposite. That’s the implication of new research by Inbal Gurari and colleagues, who’ve shown that thinking about terrorism enhances people’s self-esteem, as measured by an implicit test.
Fifty-two Jewish Irsaelis were told about recent terrorist attacks that had taken place in their country, and they were asked to indicate how many times over the last six months they’d been near to where those attacks occurred. The idea was that this would make them think about how close to danger they’d been. Participants who did this before their self-esteem was measured subsequently showed enhanced self-esteem compared with participants who had their self-esteem measured first, before thinking about the attacks.
The implicit measure of self-esteem was rather ingenious. Participants had to rate their preference for numbers and letters. Those participants displaying an abnormally high preference for letters that corresponded to their initials and to numbers corresponding to their birthday, were judged to have enhanced self-esteem.
The findings are consistent with “terror-management theory”, which is the idea that reminders of our mortality leads us to seek comfort by boosting our self-esteem and seeking meaning in the world. The findings also match the way populations have been seen to respond after real-life terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 the American flag was flown, religious attendance rocketed and government approval ratings soared.
“The current research suggests that the goals of terrorism – to demoralise a population – may be thwarted in part by our automatic tendency to protect ourselves under mortality salience conditions,” the researchers said.
Link to related Digest item: “How thoughts of death turn to joy”.
Link to further related Digest item: “Baghdad teenagers show heightened sense of self in the face of war”.
Gurari, I., Strube, M., & Hetts, J. (2009). Death? Be Proud! The Ironic Effects of Terror Salience on Implicit Self-Esteem Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39 (2), 494-507 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00448.x
Aarti Iyer and Julian Oldmeadow at Exeter University presented 26 men and 34 women with a description of Ken Bigley’s kidnapping, just days after news reports broke of his capture in Iraq. Half of the participants were also shown images of Ken Bigley that had been released by the kidnappers, and which had subsequently been published in the press. These showed Bigley in a prison-style orange jump suit, chained, caged and in obvious distress. The report detailed how the kidnappers were threatening to execute Bigley if their demands were not met. Afterwards all the participants recorded their emotional reaction to the kidnapping, in terms of their fear, sympathy and anger. They also reported their views on the Iraq war, and their opinion on whether the British government should negotiate with the kidnappers and heed to their demands.
Participants shown photographs of Ken Bigley, especially those who were against the Iraq war, subsequently reported feeling greater fear than participants who were only shown a written description of his kidnapping. Moreover, participants who experienced more fear, were also more likely to endorse negotiation with the kidnappers, and so Iyer and Oldmeadow concluded that by increasing people’s fear, the photos of Ken Bigley that appeared in the media could have indirectly aided the kidnappers’ aims.
“One reading of this research, then, is that those who asked the media not to publish the photographs of Mr. Bigley may have been correct in their misgivings”, the researchers said. However, they added that if the photographs had also shown the kidnappers and other aspects of the capture, the emotional impact of could have been different: provoking more anger, for example. “This suggests another reading of the research”, they said, “that the media should not be censored, but rather, should be careful to publish graphic images that present a balanced perspective of an event or situation”.
Iyer, A. & Oldmeadow, J. (2006). Picture this: Emotional and political responses to photographs of the Kenneth Bigley kidnapping. European Journal of Social Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.316
Link to discussion on BBC News online
Two years before the recent London bombings, Robin Goodwin and colleagues surveyed 100 employees at the British Library in London, and 240 students in London and Oxford, to see if there was a relationship between what they valued in life and how threatened they felt by terrorism.
People who placed more importance on enjoying their life were more fearful of being personally at risk of an attack. Somewhat paradoxically, people who reported being more open to change (valuing variation and novelty, being creative and curious) felt less personally at risk. The researchers also found older people, women, and those living in the suburbs rather than the city, thought a terror attack was more likely. On average, the staff at the British Library said an attack in Britain was 66 per cent likely, while the students said 46 per cent (where 0 per cent meant “not at all likely” and 100 per cent meant “extremely likely”). That an attack would directly affect themselves or their family, the library staff said 34 per cent likely, and the students 20 per cent. Those people who reported believing an attack was more likely, tended also to say they had changed their travel plans and avoided ‘high-risk’ areas.
“Our data suggest that older respondents living in suburban locations may require greater psychological assurance about levels of risk, whilst individuals higher on openness to change values may be less easy to alert about preparations for a potential attack…”, the authors said.
They concluded: “Our findings show that particular individual and demographic factors can contribute to perceptions and responses to terror threats. Social psychologists need to consider these factors as an important part of their theoretical arsenal as they seek to understand, and hopefully in time, help alleviate, this continuing threat”.
Goodwin, R., Willson, M. & Gaines Jr. S. (2005). Terror threat perception and its consequences in contemporary Britain. British Journal of Psychology. In Press. DOI: 10.1348/000712605X62786