The Psychology of Terrorist Martyrdom

As the UK faces what Theresa May has called its biggest terrorism threat in its history, understanding and recognising who might become a terrorist martyr is of crucial significance. Martyrdom, or the ultimate sacrifice, seems to be a bizarre concept that goes against all psychology theory...

As the UK faces what Theresa May has called its biggest terrorism threat in its history, understanding and recognising who might become a terrorist martyr is of crucial significance. Martyrdom, or the ultimate sacrifice, seems to be a bizarre concept that goes against all psychology theory, yet we are facing a seemingly endless surge of individuals willing to give their life for the cause. Jihadists, militants, terrorists - whatever the media call them - seem to have suicide missions at their very heart, and there is no shortage of volunteers, including an increasing number within Europe.

A recent research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1 seeks to analyse what motivates people to overcome the natural survival instinct that has dominated human existence since time began, to give up their life in a 'martyr' attack. Researchers from the USA and Canada have joined forces with Keren Sharvit from The University of Haifa in Israel (who presumably knows a thing or two about terrorism), to examine the psychological make-up of identified terrorists as well as non-terrorists. What they find might surprise you.

For a start, the researchers and several before them, insist that suicide terrorists do not necessarily suffer from any psychopathology and that in fact, they tend to be rational and in touch with reality. In other words, they are not 'mad'. What they are, is so devoted to a cause of societal importance (in their view), that their own self-interest diminishes to the point where the cause matters more than their own life. In fact, martyrdom has some similarities with altruism (thought to be a personality trait) although with important differences; whilst both involve acting for the (perceived) benefit of others, altruism does not necessarily involve sacrifice, whereas martyrdom clearly does. There is a distinction, too, between martyrdom per se, and terrorist martyrdom. The former only involves sacrificing one's own life for a cause whilst the latter's reason d'etre includes harming others.

So what is the psychological make-up of those prone to become terrorist martyrs? According the aforementioned study which analysed nearly 3000 people from a range of populations (including incarcerated Tamil Tiger terrorists), people scoring high on the newly-developed Self-Sacrifice Scale, also showed traits of altruism, belief in God and impression management (wanting to impress others). The study did not reveal any relationship between self-sacrifice and depression or normal suicidal ideation.

This propensity towards self-sacrifice, as indicated by the Self-Sacrifice Scale, was proven with more direct measures too. The more people indicated a propensity to self-sacrifice, the more likely they were to 'kill' themselves in a video game test. Not only that, but people scoring higher on the Scale, were more likely to tolerate higher levels of pain for a good cause - as shown by their willingness to eat teaspoons on hot Tabasco sauce, when money would be donated to a charity supporting their cause for each teaspoon they ate.

What this ground-breaking study by Belanger, Caouette, Sharvit and Dugas (2014) then shows is that it might be possible to predict who is likely to become a terrorist martyr by administering their Self-Sacrifice Scale to those at risk or suspected of being radicalised. But whilst the creation of a scale to measure this propensity could be of immense value, it still doesn't address the issue of what motivates a person towards these self-sacrificial tendencies. One theory put forward to address this is the Personal Significance Theory, first proposed by Kruglanski et al in 2009 2 This holds that self-sacrificial individuals are motivated by a need to attain personal significance i.e. to be recognised, valued, to matter - to be someone important. It is lack or loss of significance that drives people to restore it via commitment to a cause that rewards them through prestige, feeling of belonging etc. Lack of personal significance can drive a person to seek the deeper significance that martyrdom brings. And, in doing so, they leave behind their non-significant anonymity to earn enormous recognition that transcends their death and lives on for ever in the collective memory of the group.

Thus, what seems to be anathema to the basic human survival instinct might actually be, paradoxically, in line with it. The terrorist martyr, in taking their life (and others), may attain the highly valued goal of 'living' forever, in the minds and hearts of generations to come. Fighting such a drive is difficult, so spotting the potential terrorist is perhaps our greatest weapon. Based on Belanger et al's new Self-Sacrifice Scale and the Theory of Personal Significance then, four key questions could help identify someone suspected of having the potential for martyrdom:

  • How much would you be prepared to suffer in order to advance your cause?
  • How much would you be prepared to risk your life for your cause?
  • How much of your personal belongings and possessions would you be prepared to give up in order to advance your cause?
  • How much do you seek to be valued and recognised as an important member of your community?

Perhaps if these questions were asked in schools, mosques and homes around the country, we might be able to stem the flood of potential martyrs currently leaving our shores to pursue their dangerous goals - and look forward to a safer Christmas here too.

1 Bélanger, J.J., Caouette, J., Sharvit, K., & Dugas, M. (2014). The psychology of martyrdom: Making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of a cause. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(3), 494-515.

2. Arie W. Kruglanski, Xiaoyan Chen, Mark Dechesne, Shira Fishman and Edward Orehek (2009) Fully Committed: Suicide Bombers' Motivation and the Quest for Personal Significance Political Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 331-357


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