Note: Ben Frankel, editor-in-chief, has years of experience as a writer and editor in the fields of international security, defense, and foreign policy. Ben did his undergraduate studies at the University of Tel Aviv, and his graduate work at the University of Chicago.
Since most people who hold radical views do not become terrorists, what are the factors that drive some to violent extremism? Is there a connection between mental illness and terrorist involvement? And why do some interrogators resort to torture when the body of evidence shows building rapport with suspects is more effective?
These questions and others are addressed in a special issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. The APA says that the articles look at such topics as how individuals become radicalized; how to predict who will become a terrorist; the progression from nonviolence to radicalization to terrorism; and the role of community resilience in preventing youth from embracing violent extremism.
“Terrorism is one of the most complex social problems of our time,” said John G. Horgan, guest editor of the issue and a psychology professor at Georgia State University. “Efforts to understand terrorism abound in every academic discipline but many questions regarding how to predict and prevent it remain unanswered. There has never been a more pressing need for greater engagement from psychology.”
Among the articles in the special issue:
— “Understanding Political Radicalization: The Two-Pyramids Model” by Clark McCauleyand Sophia Moskalenko of Bryn Mawr College – In this article, the authors propose that radicalization to extremist opinions is a different psychological phenomenon than is radicalization to extremist action. They describe an “opinion pyramid,” consisting of people who share accelerating levels of extremist ideas, and an “action pyramid” with levels ranging from passivity to legal activism to political violence and terrorism. “The warrant for the two-pyramids model is the observation that 99 percent of those with radical ideas never act,” they write. “Conversely, many join in radical action without radical ideas.” Programs for countering violent extremism that do not distinguish extreme ideas from extremist actions will needlessly multiply the terrorist threat, they suggest.
— “Risk Assessment and the Prevention of Radicalization from Nonviolence Into Terrorism,” by Kiran M. Sarma, National University of Ireland, Galway – Is it possible to identify those who will and will not become involved in terrorism in the future? This question is of central importance to those given the task of assessing the risk posed by individuals who may be on a trajectory toward violence. In the article, Sarma discusses the challenges of conducting risk assessment for terrorism. He describes some of the current tools for screening people who have come to the attention to the authorities as being potentially at risk, and who may be on a trajectory from radical thought to violent behavior. Sarma argues that while risk assessment for terrorism is fraught with both ethical and empirical challenges, progress can be made in the area of human judgment and decision-making and in particular the way that assessors gather, synthesize and make decisions about information. The emphasis, he stresses, should be on structured judgments rather than just adding up scores on lists of “red flag behaviors.” “In practice, evaluators consider both the presence of factors and the relevance of risk factors,” Sarma writes.
— “Building Community Resilience to Violent Extremism Through Genuine Partnerships,” by B. Heidi Ellis, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Saida Abdi, Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston University School of Social Work – Social connection is at the heart of resilient communities and strategies aimed at preventing youth from embracing violent extremism, according to this article. Acknowledging the enormous controversy surrounding existing initiatives, the authors maintain that healthy partnerships between government agencies and community members can, if done right, provide appropriate early warning systems for the prevention of violent extremism. This may require a paradigm shift, from a traditional top-down to a bottom-up approach, they write. Done wrong, top-down efforts to define and respond to the risk of violent extremism run the risk of undermining the very community assets that contribute to resilience. For instance, an overemphasis on one particular group as vulnerable to violent extremist ideology will lead to stigma and discrimination, which can undermine a positive sense of social identity for members of that group and degrade community resilience, according to the article.
— “Toward a Psychology of Humiliation in Asymmetric Conflict,” by Clark McCauley, Bryn Mawr College
The article explores how humiliation (defined as a corrosive combination of shame and anger) is often a key growth factor for terrorist conflicts. Research on humiliation as a psychological construct has barely begun, according to McCauley.
“When analysts discuss the role that humiliation plays in warfare, terrorism and genocide, they often speak as though we know what humiliation is and what it does,” he writes. “But the fact is that humiliation will have to be better understood before it can help us understand intergroup violence.”
Research on humiliation is equally vital for understanding government reactions to terrorism — something that has been little studied by those interested in terrorism, he writes. “Perhaps the most startling implication of this analysis is that it is not only the weak who can be humiliated,” he adds. “The powerful can be humiliated by the weak if — as is often the case in terrorist attacks — the government targeted is unable to retaliate directly against the perpetrators.”
— “There and Back Again: The Study of Mental Disorder and Terrorist Involvement,” by Paul Gill and Emily Corner, University College London – Summarizing the last forty years of research on the connection between mental disorders and terrorist involvement, the authors conclude there is no common psychological profile for a terrorist. Rather, the evidence suggests that some types of terrorists may be more likely to possess certain psychological traits compared with the general population and that those terrorist subsamples with high rates of mental health disorders still fall below 50 percent. No single mental health disorder appears to be a predictor of terrorist involvement. They suggest that the experience of mental health disorders may be just one of many risk factors that push and pull an individual into terrorist activity.
— “Revenge Versus Rapport: Interrogation, Terrorism, and Torture,” by Laurence Alison and Emily Alison, University of Liverpool – The idea that generating helplessness, dread and fear would be a reliable strategy for eliciting information runs counter to the research, according to this article. Tactics such as sleep deprivation, exposure to heat and cold and stress positions actually impair recall, damaging the value of any information generated, the authors write. So why is torture still used? “At least part of the reason why torture continues to emerge may lie in our human nature to accept that it is only used when there is no alternative, and it appears to be for the greater good,” they write. Rapport building, on the other hand, appears to be a more effective tactic, but has been both difficult to define and to measure. The authors developed a technique for analyzing audio and video interrogation footage to measure the effectiveness of interrogation techniques, and they applied it to a large data set of terrorist interrogations. They found that, among many other interpersonal skills, an adaptive authoritative manner on the part of the interviewer (characterized by being in charge, setting the agenda and advising) yielded more information than a maladaptive manner (characterized by being demanding, dogmatic, pedantic and rigid).