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Satirical Magazine Staff Murdered in Paris - Can Psychology Explain why Satire Provokes Violence?

08/01/2015 15:03 GMT | Updated 10/03/2015 09:59 GMT

People across the world reel in shock from the terrorist attack in Paris, but particularly jolting is that cartoonists and humourists, who merely poke fun at politics and religion, were targets for such a murderous response.

There also appears to be a psychological link with the other news story of the day, which has been now overshadowed by tragic events in Paris - the increasing evidence being revealed by the FBI in the US - North Korea was behind the Sony Pictures cyber-attack last year.

Again a punishing response to satire - the film that provoked the belligerent reaction involved a fictional plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Why did the North Koreans aggressively aim at a movie? Why did the Paris terrorists target cartoonists?

Why do some people seem to find being laughed at particularly threatening?

It's easy just to label such extreme reactions to being made fun of as signs of mental instability. But are there psychological processes involved which could also contribute to calming a cycle of violence?

One consideration is that when people feel especially threatened, they do tend to respond in a particularly hostile manner. The sense of threat shapes their perceptions, plus explains their reactions.

This is the possible conclusion of a recent study conducted by German psychologists based at Philipps University of Marburg, and Friedrich Schiller University Jena.

The research, published in 2013, was inspired by the observation that prejudice and discrimination against Muslims dramatically increased in Western countries after the 9/11 attacks. There appeared to be a tendency for 'authoritarianism' to surge when people feel personally or collectively threatened.

Authoritarianism represents prioritising conformity and security, being more prejudiced and aggressive towards people who are different from us. A classic authoritarian response to terrorist threat is sanctioning torture of suspects, and this is precisely what this new study found.

Also, security agencies in the US mounted a particularly authoritarian response to terrorist threat, in deploying overly harsh interview and detention techniques, often amounting to torture.

The findings of the German study entitled 'Authoritarian reactions to terrorist threat: Who is being threatened, the Me or the We?', are that personal terrorist threat--that is, thinking about becoming a victim of a terrorist attack personally--makes people more likely to act as a member of a group (ie I am a patriotic American/Parisian) rather than an individual person. So conformity, patriotism and nationalism increase - seeing the world more as polarised between 'them' and 'us'.

Participants showed more 'in-group bias' and indicated more authoritarian attitudes and approval of torture as a legal measure, when confronted with personal terrorist threat.

The authors, Frank Asbrock and Immo Fritsche, suggest that the effects of terrorist peril can, at least in part, be attributed to a mounting sense of personal insecurity. Both general and specific authoritarian tendencies increased after asking people to imagine that they were personally affected by terrorism.

The authors of the present study point out that previous research has found that reminders of terrorism (e.g., photographs, proximity of terrorist attacks) increased support for nonspecific authoritarian reactions; for example, more punishment for violations of criminal law, even though these crimes were totally unrelated to terrorism.

Another study found that 9/11 reminders increased support for Bush's war on terror in US students. They found the same effect for reminding the students of their own death.

Frank Asbrock and Immo Fritsche's study, published in the 'International Journal of Psychology', finds that personal threat elicits authoritarian reactions, especially for those who strongly identify with their in-group, ie the more nationalistic or patriotic.

The authors of the study predict that following the Paris shootings the sense of personal threat is going to especially high in France, so people might react in a more negative way toward Muslims now. In particular the contention is that those already highly identified with France - like supporters of political movements such as the Front Nationale - might now react in an especially extreme manner.

Group membership appears to reduce threat experiences, offering raised self-esteem, reducing uncertainty or helping regain control. Does this also explain the spontaneous need for people around the world, but most particularly in France, to gather in city squares to express solidarity with the victims of the satirical magazine shootings?

But that self-same reaction to threat which promotes a 'them' and 'us' outlook, may also have been part of the psychology behind the shooting and similar terrorist outrages.

This German study found that effects of pure personal threat on prejudice against others, and authoritarian attitudes, were only present in people who were already highly identified with their nation.

Dr Frank Asbrock commented in reaction to the murders at the satirical magazine, that being laughed at based on your group-membership, or on an entity which you are highly identified with (like, your nation or your religion), can be perceived as a serious threat. The other group that laughs at you does not take you, nor your group, seriously, and therefore you feel profoundly devalued. In turn, feeling threatened elicits authoritarian, biased, and aggressive reactions which drive terrorist outrages.

It would appear that if we want to understand better why people react so aggressively to satire, we need to understand more the sense of personal menace that may already be involved, and the need to strongly identify with a religion or political movement, in order to stave off feeling endangered.

If we don't grasp this psychology, we are in grave danger of getting trapped in an escalating cycle of aggressive responses, the outcome of which is ever more disaster.

To de-escalate it is necessary to understand more deeply why our enemies feel threatened, as well as ourselves.

The punch-line? We need to re-build a less threatening and more just world, for everyone, where it is safe to laugh again.