The Psychology of Terror

Dr. Tom Pyszczynski

Dr. Pyszczynski has been pursuing research in the area of the psychology of fear and terror for many years. In November of 2001, the American Psychological Association invited Dr. Pyszczynski and colleagues (Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona and Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College) to prepare a book applying their work on terror management theory to understanding how Americans reacted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, what could be done to help people cope better with the attacks, the psychological and social forces that may have motivated the terrorists to do what they did, and what might be done to prevent future acts of terrorism. The book, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, was the researchers' attempt to address these issues. Since then the group has conducted a series of studies investigating many of the ideas explored in the book. These studies have examined the ways in which the terrorist attacks awakened deep existential fears and the various ways that people have coped with and defended against these fears.

[ Cover of 'In The Wake of 9/11' book.]Dr. Pyszczynski and colleagues are currently embarking on a series of studies exploring the role of these same existential fears and the cultural beliefs that are typically used to control them in leading members of the Islamic and Arab world to embrace or reject terrorist violence as a viable and legitimate means of resolving their grievances. The researchers believe that, although most Muslims do not embrace terrorism, understanding what leads some to accept such violence as acceptable or desirable is a much needed first step toward developing means of discouraging such attitudes. Furthermore, although it is clear that only a very small proportion of Muslims actually engage in terrorist violence, some level of explicit or implicit acceptance of such violence among Islamic communities is necessary to legitimize and encourage the actions of extremists.

The research group has recently discussed possible studies along these lines with colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom, and Israel, and hope to obtain large scale funding to support this work in the near future. The researchers have also discussed this project with military officers and psychologists at the Netherlands Royal Military Academy, and they have offered to make contact with colleagues in Turkey and perhaps other Islamic countries to obtain cooperation to conduct such studies there.

Dutch military psychologists are currently doing research applying the group's theory to the problem of recent discord between EU peace keeping troops from the Netherlands and Germany in Kabul, Afghanistan. The basic idea that they are testing is that the ever-present threat of death that peace-keeping troops face in Kabul, combined with the absence of a clearly defined enemy (most residents appear to be embracing EU troops and the humanitarian efforts they are engaged in, while a small minority of Kabul residents continue to launch surprise attacks on the troops) is leading to heightened tensions between Dutch and German soldiers; this is an idea that follows directly from previous research. The prospect of obtaining evidence for this idea in such an important real world setting is very exciting.

The group believes this work could be readily extended to the problems that US troops are currently facing in their peace-keeping mission in Iraq, and that research on the psychological factors involved in coping with the ongoing threat they face could be very valuable. Most of this work has been funded to date through the National Science Foundation.