People 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.
Expert interrogators know that torture doesn’t work, but until now, no-one could prove it. Two psychologists at the University of Liverpool have conducted a detailed content analysis of 878 hours of taped interrogations, and have developed a training programme for interrogators called the Alycone Course. Using role-play to simulate difficult interviews, it is widely regarded as one the best interrogation training programmes ever.
The Guardian, 14th October 2017, p.29-31.
We have ways of making you talk.
Pre-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.
Why are women more than twice as vulnerable to PTSD than men? New evidence suggests that oestrogen may play a role in the disorder. Vasiliki Michopulos at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, is researching genetic and biochemical factors which influence anxiety.
“The horrible event may be over, but you’re held hostage by what happened to you.”
“As we discover how PTSD differs between people, we realise treatments should differ too.”
New Scientist No. 3091, 17th September 2016, p.38-41.
James 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.
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.
This article in the New Scientist asks what makes people risk their own well-being to help strangers. This altruism is often dramatic and impulsive. Why?
“It took Michael McNally about 10 seconds from hearing the crash to run from his house in the Cape Cod village of Marstons Mills to the road outside. When he got there, the car was already burning… He looked inside and saw a young woman in the passenger seat… if she stayed there another minute she would die.”
New Scientist No. 3005, 24th January 2015, p36-39.