Sophia Moskalenko Ph.D.

Friction

How Could President Trump Have Inspired the NZ Shooter?

Research shows leaders' words matter.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

When a New Zealand shooter’s “manifesto” turned out to include President Donald Trump as one of his inspirations, the White House rushed to distance itself from the attack. In an interview with Fox News, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway denied any meaningful connection between the president and the shooter. Likewise, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said attempts to link President Trump’s rhetoric to the shooting in New Zealand are “absurd.”

Is it absurd to suggest that President Trump’s words contribute to radicalization? Maybe not, says psychology research.

Social psychology has accumulated a wealth of evidence of the power of social influence, including laboratory studies showing how the behavior of others can make us more amoral[1], more vengeful,[2] and more violent.[3] People in authority especially have the power to radicalize the opinion and action of those who look up to them.

For example, groupthink (a faulty decision-making process that has marked several historical U.S. foreign policy failures[4]) is predicted by leader’s behavior: Leaders who express their opinions early in the discussion are more likely to lead their followers into groupthink.[5] Research has found evidence of leader-dependent groupthink in the radicalization of the Weather Underground,[6] a 1970’s U.S terrorist group. Another study combined interviews and archival research to demonstrate that leaders’ authority and their prestige with the larger community were instrumental in the radicalization of the 2002 Bali bombers.[7]

In short, there is good evidence that leaders can move followers on a trajectory to radicalization. Not only in laboratory studies, but also in real-world terrorist groups, leaders play a significant role in radicalizing followers, both in opinion and in action.

Following the New Zealand shooting, the host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, said, “I disagree with people who say Donald Trump inspired this shooter in New Zealand. I feel like Donald Trump is inspired by the same things as the shooter in New Zealand. They’re products of the same white supremacy.” Donald Trump’s popularity among many with White Supremacy beliefs is indeed a symptom of radicalization in opinion. But a symptom can exacerbate an existing problem, as rhinitis can foster an ear infection. As a leader, Donald Trump contributes to radicalization every time he talks about “good people on both sides” or tweets about “the invasion” of immigrants.

References

[1]Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology, 67(4), 371.

[2]Mathes, E. W., & Kahn, A. (1975). Diffusion of responsibility and extreme behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(5), 881.

[3]Baron, R. S. (1969). Anonymity, deindividuation and aggression.

[4]Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes.

[5]Leana, C. R. (1985). A partial test of Janis' groupthink model: Effects of group cohesiveness and leader behavior on defective decision making. Journal of management, 11(1), 5-18.

[6]Tsintsadze-Maass, E., & Maass, R. W. (2014). Groupthink and terrorist radicalization. Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(5), 735-758.

[7]Milla, M. N., & Ancok, D. (2013). The impact of leader–follower interactions on the radicalization of terrorists: A case study of the B ali bombers. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 16(2), 92-100.