2001 : WHAT NOW?

david_g_myers's picture
Professor of Psychology, Hope College; Co-author, Psychology, 11th Edition
The social psychology of terrorism

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:

• "Terror management" experiments by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszcynski have found that being reminded of death and of our own mortality heightens prejudice and patriotism.

• "Self-serving bias" ensures that each party to a conflict will see its own actions and reactions as moral and laudable. 

• In many a study, sharing a common threat or predicament has served to unify group members. Being marooned in a snowstorm makes friends, and being attacked brings out the flags.

• In judging risk, memorable and available images dominate statistical reality. Over one recent ten year period we were 26 times safer, mile per mile, on commercial aircraft than in cars. When this year's numbers are in, air travel will again have been safer than automobiles (and one suspects that, for at least the near future, airplanes will no longer be terrorists' venue of choice). But try to tell that to anyone — which is all of us — harboring vivid images of planes flying into the WTC.

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.