What can psychological research tell us about why some people turn to violent extremism?by Michael Bond / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
The question about 7/7 that Shiv Malik’s excellent article fails to answer is this: why did Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three co-conspirators choose the path of the suicide bomber when others, with similarly radical beliefs, have not?
This question troubles many who look into the psychology of extreme acts. One completely unsatisfactory answer is that violent extremists are insane, disturbed or inherently bad. It’s unsatisfactory because the vast majority of suicide bombers, the 7/7 four included, show no sign of mental illness and have no criminal history. They are often better educated than their peers and hold respectable jobs—much has been made of Khan’s work as a youth worker.
There are two other ways of answering the question. The first makes many people uncomfortable. It is to say that the question itself is a distraction since anyone in the same situation would act in the same way. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that given the right set of circumstances, almost everyone, irrespective of personality or background, will behave in a group in ways they never would when alone. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo famously showed how easy it is to turn ordinary people into monsters. He recruited students to imitate prison guards and inmates, and put them together in a mocked-up prison at Stanford University to observe their behaviour. The experiment was aborted after six days because the “guards” had pushed many of the “prisoners” to emotional breakdown.
Since then, many other experiments and real-life observations have reinforced the conclusion that in a group environment—a football crowd, a battlefield, a rioting mob—a person’s behaviour is dictated far more by what is happening around them than by their own psychological disposition. It seems we have evolved to encourage group cohesion and co-operation. Suicide bombing is a classic—though extreme—example. There is virtually no recorded case of a suicide bomber acting alone. The bomber is always recruited and guided by a group with specific political or ideological aims, and the bombers tend to adopt a brotherhood mentality towards each other, encouraged by their common cause, their loyalty to the group and the secrecy of their mission. To use a battlefield metaphor (and the mentality is not so different), they go over the top together.
In this regard, Khan and the other 7/7 bombers shared many similarities to the “martyrs” of Hamas, the Tamil Tigers and Iraqi resistance…