Category: Terrorism

Threat of terrorism boosts people’s self-esteem

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”.
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ResearchBlogging.orgGurari, 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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Should the media publish images of terror hostages?

By publishing harrowing images of kidnapped hostages, media organisations could be inadvertently helping terrorists, psychologists have warned.

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”.
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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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to discussion on BBC News online

Fear of terror in Britain before 7/7

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”.
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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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.