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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Terrorism as Instrumental Aggression

There is perhaps no clearer example of the prevalence of violence in our everyday lives than the increase in terrorism that has been observed in the past decade (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2011). These terrorist attacks have occurred in many countries across the world, in both Eastern as well as Western cultures. Even affluent Western democracies such as Denmark, Italy, Spain, France, Canada, and the United States have experienced terrorism, which has killed thousands of people, primarily innocent civilians. Terrorists use tactics such as killing civilians to create publicity for their causes and to lead the governments of the countries that are attacked to overrespond to the threats (McCauley, 2004).

How can we understand the motives and goals of terrorists? Are they naturally evil people whose primary desire is to hurt others? Or are they more motivated to gain something for themselves, their families, or their countries? What are the thoughts and feelings that terrorists experience that drive them to their extreme behaviors? And what person and situational variables cause terrorism?

Prior research has attempted to determine if there are particular personality characteristics that describe terrorists (Horgan, 2005). Perhaps terrorists are individuals with some kind of deep psychological disturbance. However, the research conducted on various terrorist organizations does not reveal anything distinctive about the psychological makeup of individual terrorists.

Empirical data have also found little evidence for some of the situational variables that might have been expected to be important. There is little evidence for a relation between poverty or lack of education and terrorism. Furthermore, terrorist groups seem to be quite different from each other in terms of their size, organizational structure, and sources of support.

Arie Kruglanski and Shira Fishman (2006) have argued that it is best to understand terrorism not from the point of view of either particular personality traits or particular situational causes but rather as a type of instrumental aggression—a means to an end. In their view, terrorism is simply a “tool,” a tactic of warfare that anyone from any nation, military group, or even a lone perpetrator could use.

Figure 9.3 Anders Behring Breivik 
Anders Behring Breivik killed over 90 people in a misguided effort to promote his conservative beliefs about immigration. 

Kruglanski and his colleagues argue that terrorists believe that they can gain something through their terrorist acts that they could not gain through other methods. The terrorist makes a cognitive, deliberate, and instrumental decision that his or her action will gain particular objectives. Furthermore, the goal of the terrorist is not to harm others but rather to gain something personally or for one’s religion, beliefs, or country. Even suicide terrorists believe that they are dying for personal gain—for instance, the promise of heavenly paradise, the opportunity to meet Allah and the prophet Muhammad, and rewards for members of one’s family (Berko & Erez, 2007). Thus, for the terrorist, willingness to die in an act of suicidal terrorism may be motivated not so much by the desire to harm others but rather by self-concern—the desire to live forever.

One recent example of the use of terrorism to promote one’s beliefs can be seen in the actions of Anders Behring Breivik, 32 (Figure 9.3), who killed over 90 people in July 2011 through a bomb attack in downtown Olso, Norway, and a shooting spree at a children’s campground. Breivik planned his attacks for years, believing that his actions would help spread his conservative beliefs about immigration and alert the Norwegian government to the threats posed by multiculturalism (and particularly the inclusion of Muslims in Norwegian society). This violent act of instrumental aggression is typical of terrorists.

Key Takeaways

  • Aggression refers to behavior that is intended to harm another individual.
  • Violence is aggression that creates extreme physical harm.
  • Emotional or impulsive aggression refers to aggression that occurs with only a small amount of forethought or intent.
  • Instrumental or cognitive aggression is intentional and planned.
  • Aggression may be physical or nonphysical.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider how social psychologists would analyze each of the following behaviors. What type of aggression is being exhibited (if any)? Consider your answer in terms of the two underlying motivations of enhancing the self and connecting with others.
    • A wrestler tackles an opponent and breaks his arm.
    • A salesperson repeatedly calls a customer to try to convince her to buy a product, even though the customer would rather he did not.
    • Malik loses all the changes he made on his term paper and slams his laptop computer on the floor.
    • Marty finds her boyfriend kissing another girl and beats him with her purse.
    • Sally spreads false rumors about Michele.
    • Jamie knows that Bill is going to hit Frank when he next sees him, but she doesn’t warn him about it.
    • The Israeli Army attacks terrorists in Gaza but kills Palestinian civilians, including children, as well.
    • A suicide bomber kills himself and 30 other people in a crowded bus in Jerusalem.
    • North Korea develops a nuclear weapon that it claims it will use to defend itself from potential attack by other countries but that the United States sees as a threat to world peace.


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