In the wake of the terrorist attacks, it isn’t uncommon for people to ponder on the question: “What exactly was going through their minds when they did those horrible things?” For instance, normal people struggle to comprehend how Salman Abedi could be okay with the fact that he killed 22 people, many of whom were children. These people are often branded as inhuman, or monsters. We tend to dehumanise them because the idea that they were just ordinary human beings is terrifying. But the reality is that most people that carry out these attacks have families and jobs.
Psychologists have been studying terrorists to try and get an insight into their mindset for almost fifty years and that research continues today.
Recently there was a study of 66 Colombian paramilitaries all imprisoned for terrorist activities. The study came to the conclusion that the main factor in somebody becoming a terrorist is poor moral reasoning.
There are of course problems with this type of research. Many psychologists question the effectiveness of such studies which usually consist of things like psychometric measures, personality and IQ tests. There’s just very little evidence to suggest how effective these tests are at helping to identify potential terrorists.
What is clear though is that terrorist attacks aren’t randomly committed acts. Instead, they are the last action at the end of a chain of events that led up to them.
Damage is done
Part of the trouble is that because we can only know somebody is going to carry out a terrorist attack once they have been caught we can only examine that person at the point that they are effectively already a terrorist.
It’s not often that psychologists are able to study terrorists that are yet to attack anybody. So it stands to reason that most studies have been carried out on people that have actually been “caught in the act”.
Such is the case with the aforementioned Columbian paramilitaries. They were given a bunch of tests such as social-cognitive tests, IQ, executive functioning, aggressive behaviour and emotion recognition. The results of these tests were then compared to a control group of 66 non-criminals.
The results of these tests will probably be of little surprise to anybody. In the group of terrorists, they discovered higher levels of aggression and lower levels of emotional recognition.
What is perhaps less obvious, is the fact that they didn’t find any difference in the average IQ of the two different groups. Nor were there any differences in executive functioning. So what this means basically is that a terrorist is just as switched on as your average Joe. These aren’t barbaric mad-men.
What was discovered is that terrorists tend to focus more on outcomes. This is how they seem to develop their rationale that the “ends justify the means”.
Not what you think
Although there have been extensive studies on the subject. Because of the complex nature of it, it’s misleading to start labelling all terrorists as being psychopaths or having severe personality disorders.
In fact, as you find with any person from any walk of life the individuals themselves can be quite different. In fact, often times they are contradictory. Some seem to show traits like being aggressive, whereas others are defensive. Some are extroverted, whereas others seem suicidal. Other traits are sometimes present such as narcissism.
So in order to ascertain what is really going on in the mind of a terrorist, many professionals believe that the answers lie in studying them during the period before they become full-fledged terrorists, IE the radicalisation period.
As studies continue researchers are starting to develop a picture of the complex psychological processes that go on during the radicalisation process. They are starting to theorise on how things such as motivation, group ideologies and social processes can lead to terrorists developing an emotional detachment from friends and families. It is an interesting branch of psychology but we may not like the results.