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 World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond.

coverwuyPre-industrial societies are very different from ours. Some of them kill grandparents when they get to a certain age. Individuals are often fluent in ten or more languages. They feast when food is plentiful, but are happy to go without for several days if there is nothing to eat.

Until a few thousand years ago, all humans lived in this way. It is what we evolved to do. This book is a fascinating account of Jared Diamond’s lifetime of observation of pre-industrial people from around the world. It is long, but packed with packed with intriguing stories from tribal societies.

Not surprisingly, Jared Diamond thinks that we have a lot to learn from these people.

More Things in Heaven and Earth, by Stephen Jay Gould.

This article is a really nice short introduction to the work of one of the main critics of evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould. He was a biologist, disagreed with the “evolutionary agenda”, which seeks to explain most or all human behaviour in evolutionary terms. He regarded the extreme evolutionary position as overly deterministic. He did not dismiss evolutionary psychology, but instead regarded it as a partial explanation, along with environmental and cultural factors.

This article contains a nice introduction to Gould’s concept of the spandrel, which is something that you really need to know about if you are interested in philosophy or the psychology of religion.spandrel

This other articles in this book are less readable and less informative, but might be worth a look if you are interested.

“The task of evolutionary psychology… turns into a speculative search for reasons why a behaviour that may harm us now must once have originated for adaptive purposes.”

More Things in Heaven and Earth, in Alas, Poor Darwin ed Hilary Rose and Steven Rose.

The Power of Mind, by Dan Jones, Shannon Fischer, and Laurence Sugarman.

Three New Scientist articles about short cuts to harness the brain’s hidden depths.

The Government has a “nudge unit” devoted to using psychology to influence people to behave in desirable ways. For example, previously you had actively to sign up for an occupational pension. Now, you have to tick a box saying that you want to opt out if you wish. Uptake of pension contribution schemes has dramatically increased.

These linked article are about how scientists are understanding more about how throwing simple switches in the mind can solve problems.

“Mindfulness meditation is a form of hypnosis.”

“Brain imaging studies have revealed specific areas of the brain are involved in the placebo effect.”

New Scientist No. 3064, 12th March 2016, p28-35.

Ommm… aarg! by Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm

Meditation and mindfulness are entering the mainstream as psychological techniques for combatting stress and promoting psychological well being. But are the effects wholly positive? Research shows that there can be adverse effects as well as beneficial ones: twitching, trembling, panic, disorientation, psychotic breakdown and other undesirable effects. Japanese soldiers in the second world war used meditation to lose their sense of self, and to “become” the orders that they received. Should society at large be more aware of these possible negative consequences?

New Scientist No. 3021, 16th May 2015, p.28 -29.

Extremism’s False Trail, by Kamaldeep Bhui.

What are the warning signs that young people are becoming radicalised? Kamaldeep Bhui at Queen Mary University, London, applies a public health approach to this question, and attempts to find risk and resilience factors.

Radicalisation seems to be unrelated to poverty, political engagement, frequency of religious worship, or experience of discrimination or adversity. However there was a correlation between being born outside the UK, general ill health, and the experience of depression.

Bhui recommends that vulnerable young people are exposed to healthy sources of self-esteem, authentic religious teaching, and social support. These factors are known to protect young people from joining gangs; it is likely that they will also inoculate young people against the temptation to become radicalised.

New Scientist No. 3016, 11th April 2015, p24 – 25.

Beyond Belief, by Graham Lawton.

Did you know that there is a strong correlation between political belief and a simple biological parameter of brain function?

What do you really know to be true? How do you know that it’s true? Do you really know it, or do you in fact just believe it? What separates knowledge from belief? How are beliefs formed, and how much influence do they have?

“The prime directive of the brain is to extract meaning. Everything else is a slave system.”

“Most religions feature a familiar cast of characters: supernatural agents, life after death, moral directives, and answers to existential questions. Why do so many people believe such things so effortlessly?”

New Scientist No. 3015, 4th April 2015, p. 28-33.