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The Psychology of Terrorism: What Makes Young Men Prepared to Kill for a Cause?

12/09/2014 11:22 BST | Updated 11/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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Close to the anniversary of the World Trace Center terrorist attacks 13 years ago, and since Islamic extremist groups appear to flourishing more than ever before, I think it's important to examine the phenomenon of terrorism from a psychological point of view. David Cameron has explained the problem of Islamic terrorism in terms of a poisonous narrative of extremism which is being fed to young people. But this is only a superficial explanation of the problem. What is it that makes young men susceptible to this narrative? Why are they drawn towards it, and why do they allow it to take such a hold over them that they lose all sense of humanity and morality?

It's a big mistake to simply label terrorists as "evil" or psychologically deranged - in fact, psychologists who studied members of groups such as the German Red Army Faction and the IRA found that they tended to be stable individuals with a clear vision, not paranoid or delusional. What seems to make terrorists essentially different from others is their ability to "switch off" their sense of empathy in service to their beliefs and goals.

Empathy and compassion seem to be natural for human beings. It's natural for us to feel for the sufferings of others, and to respond with a desire to alleviate their suffering. If you lack the ability to empathise, then it's very likely that you could be diagnosed as a psychopath. To become a terrorist means disengaging this natural empathy, so that a person can treat certain other human beings - the members of the groups he feels he is fighting against - as objects, and kill them without remorse. It means seeing members of those groups as fundamentally "other" and refusing to connect with them as fellow human beings. It is only a complete lack of empathy which makes it possible for one human being to behead another.

It is very significant that most terrorists are young men, usually adolescents (at least when they become indoctrinated into terrorist groups). Adolescence can be a psychologically difficult period, during which a person becomes aware of themselves as a separate individual, with a sense of vulnerability and fragility. As a result, there is a strong need for identity and belonging. This is why adolescents often join gangs, and become followers of fashion or of pop groups. Belonging to a group helps to alleviate their sense of separateness and strengthens their identity.

But it's also why adolescents are vulnerable to religious extremism. Belonging to a religion, and to a terrorist group within that religion, provides a like-minded community, supporting beliefs and possibly a family-like structure. It also provides status for people who may have little or none in a normal context.

However, perhaps the attraction of Islamic extremism points to a deeper problem too. Below the shiny surface of the modern world, there is a crisis of meaning and purpose. Our social and economic systems encourage us to think of well-being in terms of shallow materialism. From the moment we enter the education system, we're taught that the purpose of life is to be successful and wealthy. We're encouraged to achieve and consume. If life has any meaning, it means "doing well for ourselves." We're expected spend most of our waking hours performing repetitive and monotonous tasks (otherwise known as "work") to this end. Deeper aspects of life - such as self-development, creativity, spirituality, service, connection with nature, aesthetic appreciation - have progressively been denigrated as materialism has thrived. And religious extremism can partly be seen as a reaction against this shallow materialism - a wretchedly misguided attempt to live in a more serious way, to snatch at some degree of purpose and meaning.

The sense of identity and of meaning and purpose can be so intoxicating that it makes people subconsciously prepared to disengage their empathy. Encouraged by their leaders and other members, terrorists use a number of techniques to do this. They de-humanise members of other groups, seeing them as a collective rather than individuals, and viewing each member of the group as responsible for the crimes as a whole. Morality is withdrawn from the groups, and their suffering is minimised. The terrorists' behaviour is "neutralized" with the belief that the magnitude of their cause makes individual acts of brutality necessary and insignificant.

The ideology which terrorists are fed aids this process too. When people take on a belief system, they begin to see the world in an abstract, intellectualised way, rather than through direct perception. They begin to see the world in terms of concepts and categories, developing a dry and rigid outlook which becomes so powerful that it divorces them from the immediacy of experience and contact. It encourages them to see other human beings not as individuals but as units in an abstract, conceptual and deadly game.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity:Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. www.stevenmtaylor.com