The Psychology of Terrorism, by John Horgan.

Image resultPeople have very high expectations of what psychology can tell us about terrorists. Politicians and security forces want us to identify a “terrorist personality”, so we can identify those who might be attracted to terrorism before they become active. In fact terrorists come in all psychological shapes and sizes. Just like there are musicians with different personalities, and police officers with different personalities, and shopkeepers with different personalities, so there are terrorists with many different personalities, and it is impossible to predict from a personality assessment whether or not someone is likely to become involved in terrorism.

One of the problems of research into terrorism is sampling. Terrorists do not typically volunteer for psychological investigations. Those that do tend to be in custody, and have long ago disengaged from terrorist behaviour.

Horgan argues that the psychology of terrorism is in fact pre-paradigmatic, and that psychologist should focus for the time being on accurate and precise descriptions of terrorist behaviour, rather than attempts at explanation.

This is a hard book, which is definitely aimed at an undergraduate level or above. It will reward those who want to persevere with some advanced reading. That said, there are some highly readable bits and pieces. The snippets of transcriptions of interview with terrorists are fascinating.


The Persuaders, by James Garvey.

persuadersJames Garvey decided to write this book after attending a lecture by a high-flying Oxford theologian. In the Q & A, he raised his hand and posed a killer objection to one of the points that the speaker had made. His neighbour leaned over to him and whispered “you’ve got him!”

Garvey had won plainly won the argument. Unfortunately, it made no difference whatsoever. The speaker didn’t change his mind. He seemed to consider the question, and then just carried on, ignoring the point that had been made.

The point is that people are not really swayed by rational arguments – even ones that are obviously true. Rather people make up their minds on the basis of emotional factors, and then use rational argument to justify their already fixed ideas.

This sad psychological fact has long been know to advertisers and politicians, who use industrial strength emotional and cognitive manipulation to implant in our minds the opinions they wish us to have. No-one is immune from this manipulation. The only real defence is knowledge, so at least we can be aware of how we are being controlled and directed for the benefit of others.

In The Persuaders, James Garvey takes us on a tour of what he has discovered about the persuasion industry. He’s a philosopher, but there’s plenty of scientific psychology in the book. Required reading for any psychologist interested in democracy and free will.