What Science Can Reveal About The Psychological Profiles Of Terrorists

Danielle Andrew 27/05/2017, 17:14

What went though the mind of the suicide bomber Salman Abedi just before he blew himself up in Manchester this week, killing 22 people? We often dismiss terrorists as non-humans, monsters, at first. But when we learn that they were seemingly normal individuals with families and jobs, it’s hard not to wonder about how their minds really work. The Conversation

The search for a terrorist “personality” or “mindset” dominated psychological research in the 1970s and 1980s and remains a significant area for research today. A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, which assessed the cognitive and psychological profiles of 66 Colombian paramilitaries imprisoned for committing terrorist acts, now argues that poor moral reasoning is what defines terrorists.

The idea behind such research is obvious – it’s to identify stable, predictive traits or “markers” of terrorist personalities. If we could do that, we may be able to predict who will become a terrorist – and perhaps prevent it. But this type of research is viewed by many psychologists, myself included, with extreme caution. Researchers carrying out such studies typically use a myriad of psychometric measures, personality and IQ tests in various contexts. But there’s no consensus on how useful these tests are.

And even if we did manage to pin down terrorist markers, what would we do with this knowledge? Would we all be tested across our lifespan? What would happen if we had a marker?

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Appeal case of mass murderer Anders Breivik. LISE AASERUD/EPA

The term “terrorist mindset” is also problematic because it fuels the notion that terrorists are abnormal, resulting in knee-jerk endeavours to uncover the abnormality. For psychologists, abnormal suggests presence of a disorder, deficit or illness which makes terrorists “sick” or different. This idea seems plausible because it helps us come to terms with extreme behaviour.

But terrorist atrocities are undoubtedly the end of a chain of events which only achieve significance with the benefit of hindsight. By focusing on the event itself, how the terrorist was behaving at that time or how he/she may have been thinking in the immediate run up, our understanding becomes distorted. This is because the process of becoming a terrorist has been overlooked.

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