Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Anger, Fear, and Terrorism

The power and intent of a terrorist group influences people's reaction to it.

High profile terrorist attacks have had an enormous impact on the modern world.  In the wake of 9/11, the US government increased its investment in the “War on Terror” by giving Special Forces the responsibility to combat terrorism around the world.  Events like the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year continue to remind people of the potential danger of seemingly random violent events. 

An interesting paper by Roger Giner-Sorolla and Angela Maitner in the August, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the kinds of emotional reactions that people have to the threat of terrorism and how those reactions influence the reaction they want their government to take to threats.

These authors speculated that the motives of the terrorist groups and the power and financing of those groups would influence the way people react to them.  These emotional reactions would then influence whether people want their government to attack and cause harm to the groups or to negotiate with them. 

In one study, a sample of over 1000 Americans was told about a terrorist group.  The description of the group manipulated both the intent of the group and the power of that group. 

In order to manipulate intent, one description said that the group does not wish to harm Western countries, though the group has caused harm to American people and businesses.  A second said that the group wants to harm Western countries in retaliation for perceived exploitation by Americans in the past.  A third said that the group wants to harm Western countries because they believe those countries are evil

To manipulate power, the group was either described as being small and poorly funded or as being large, connected to wealthy individuals with a virtually limitless supply of money and weapons.

After reading the description, people were asked questions about their anger and fear toward the group.  They were also asked about whether they felt the US government should attack or negotiate with these groups. 

The intent of the group influenced people’s anger toward it.  They were more angry when the group was motivated to attack Western countries than when it did not intend to attack the US directly.  In contrast, the emotion of fear was influenced primarily by the power of the group.  People were more afraid of high power groups than low power groups.

The emotional reaction to the group influenced the desired reaction to it.  When people were angry, they wanted the US government to attack and cause harm to the group.  They were also more interested in having the government attack high power groups than low power groups. 

A different pattern was observed for negotiation.  People were more interested in having the government negotiate with high power groups than low power groups, but were actually less likely to have them negotiate with groups that wanted to cause harm to Western countries than with groups that did not intend to harm Western countries. 

Statistical analyses found that the desire to attack was predicted both by the amount of anger and fear that people felt.  High levels of anger and fear led people to be more interested in attacking than low levels of anger and fear.  In contrast, high levels of anger led to a lower desire to negotiate with a group, while high levels of fear led to an increased desire to negotiate with a group.

These kinds of reactions matter.  Governments have many possible ways to address potential terrorist threats.  However, governments have to appear responsive to the needs of their people, particularly when those governments are democratically elected.   Thus, if the people of a country want a group to be attacked, it is difficult for their government to act differently.  Presumably, though, a government can influence the way people react to a threat by changing the way that they describe the terrorist group. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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