International Society of Political Psychology

Conference Abstracts

Violent Thinking: The Psychological Development of the Terrorist

Helen O'Hara,

Conference: ISPP 2011
Research Area: Political decision making

The decision to engage in terrorism may seem an extreme political choice, however, analyses of those factors which might influence this choice are scattered across disparate studies and academic disciplines. This paper will provide a meta-analysis of the role of psychology in the formation of the terrorist. Firstly it will examine whether personal factors, such as psychological traits or physiology, represent causal determinants of engagement in violent political behaviour. Then it will analyse the role of the socio-political climate on the decision to become involved with a terrorist group, in particular how traumatic experiences and personal history inform political choices. It will then consider the analytic potential of a dynamic model of terrorist involvement which investigates the reciprocal relationship between these personal and contextual factors and individual cognition. Finally, this paper will argue that as an individual experiences increased interaction with the terrorist group, group cognition and ideology begin to subsume individual thinking, in particular moral reasoning, until the point that the individual makes the decision to participate in violent action as a legitimate political strategy. This conceptualisation of the process of terrorism as one of becoming engaged in a personal behavioural narrative offers distinct opportunities for counter-terrorism strategies and cooperation at different points of this psychosocial evolution. This includes not only preventing the acquisition of new recruits but also promoting dissension within the terrorist group and amongst the wider community, and facilitating exit for members already embroiled in violence.