A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Social Psychological Approaches to Understanding and Preventing Terrorism: Toward an Interdisciplinary Perspective


Social psychology's focus on person-situation interactions has implications for who becomes a terrorist; for example, Moghaddam (2004) posits a "staircase model" of terrorism in which terrorism is viewed as sequential progress from lower floors to higher floors that occurs on a progressively narrowing staircase. Each floor is characterized by unique psychological processes and progressive restrictions on response options, such that "destruction of others, or oneself, or both" becomes the only option. Regarding what motivates terrorism, from a psychological perspective there is little evidence that terrorists have abnormally high levels of mental illness or psychopathy. They are rational actors with purpose, intent, high levels of commitment, and deeply held convictions. Cultivated perceived threats to group identity and values (social, cultural, religious, political, etc.) are at the core of motivations for terrorism. A similar dynamic operates in responses to terrorism. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 saw an aftermath of intense empathy for victims and a heightened sense of identity in the forging of anti-Arab prejudice and a retaliatory military response against those perceived as responsible for the attacks. Repeated terrorist attacks have been found to provoke subsequent attacks characterized by a disproportionate amount of force and destructive power. Critical features of a rational and effective response to terrorism are a global effort to reduce poverty, injustice, prejudice, and an application of proven conflict-resolution theory. The latter involves the cultivation of common goals and a reduction of categorical "us-versus-them" perspectives.

Publication Information

Full Citation:

Lemieux, Anthony. 2006. "Social Psychological Approaches to Understanding and Preventing Terrorism: Toward an Interdisciplinary Perspective." Journal of Security Education (January): 75-84. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J460v01n04_07

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