1. The social psychology of terrorism
What compels people to commit simultaneous mass murder and suicide? Although evolutionary psychology may be challenged to invent an adaptive purpose for such behavior (it can more easily explain its rarity), my own discipline of social psychology can help. Research on the roots of hatred, aggression, and conflict shed light. For example, experiments on "group polarization" reveal how groups amplify their members' shared tendencies. In one study, I observed that when prejudiced high school students discussed racial issues, their attitudes became more prejudiced. When low-prejudice students discussed the same issues, they became more tolerant.
Group polarization can amplify the mutual resolve of those in a self-help group. But it can also have dire consequences. In other experiments, group decision making has amplified retaliatory responses to provocation (a phenomenon we may now be experiencing). Clark McCauley (Bryn Mawr) has also documented how terrorism arises among people who are drawn together out of a shared grievance, and who then become more and more extreme as they interact in isolation from moderating influences. We can hope that, over time, the globalization of communication will lessen isolation and its associated extreme polarizations.
Social psychological principles also help explain our responses to terror. Four quick examples of principles that have operated writ large since 9-11:
2. Regarding Richard Dawkins' Guardian essay blaming religion
The "insane courage" that enabled the horror of 9-11 "came from religion," noted Dawkins. If "a martyr's death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the world a very dangerous place . . . . To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns."
Dawkins is perhaps right to suggest that a warped religious idea of martyrdom and the afterlife was at work here. And he's surely right that religion at its worst can be toxic and superstitious which is something healthy religion must ever be vigilant about (much as science is vigilant about pseudoscience). Witness Jerry Fallwell's initial explanation of the disaster. But on balance, is religion good or bad for us? (Medicine, twisted, can kill people. But we'd want further evidence before deciding that medicine is bad.)
Why not resolve the issue empirically? Setting aside research on religion's correlations with health, happiness, and communal solidarity, what are its effects on good vs. evil-doing? Does religion's promised afterlife and its associated purpose and accountability more often call forth good deeds or bad? Does religiosity tend to be associated with increased or decreased criminality? With increased or decreased compassion, volunteerism, and generosity? (As I've explained in The American Paradox, there are lots of relevant data.) Or we might inquire into the religiosity/irreligiosity of the world's genocidal dictators (such as Hitler, Mao, and Stalin) as compared to the great humanitarians who established universities, founded hospitals, took medicine to the Third World, and led civil rights movements in the USA and South Africa.