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Inside: The purpose of charities, tweeting MPs, false economies. View this email in your browser
Edited by Tom Jeffery

What science can reveal about the psychological profiles of terrorists

It might be comforting to believe that terrorists are somehow inhuman, but they often live very normal lives before launching attacks. Coral Dando sets out how psychological research into the minds of terrorists has developed in recent decades.
 
The search for a terrorist “personality” or “mindset” dominated psychological research in the 1970s and 1980s and remains a significant area for research today. A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, which assessed the cognitive and psychological profiles of 66 Colombian paramilitaries imprisoned for committing terrorist acts, now argues that poor moral reasoning is what defines terrorists.
 
The idea behind such research is obvious – it’s to identify stable, predictive traits or “markers” of terrorist personalities. If we could do that, we may be able to predict who will become a terrorist – and perhaps prevent it. But this type of research is viewed by many psychologists, myself included, with extreme caution. Researchers carrying out such studies typically use a myriad of psychometric measures, personality and IQ tests in various contexts. But there’s no consensus on how useful these tests are.

Study on Colombian paramilitaries

Of course it’s not easy to get hold of terrorists prior to an attack. Most research therefore concerns terrorists that have been caught or are suspected terrorists. The new study did just this. Imprisoned Columbian paramilitaries completed a battery of social-cognitive tests, creating individual profiles – including assessments of moral cognition, IQ, executive functioning, aggressive behaviour and emotion recognition. They were then compared with 66 non-criminals.
 
The researchers found terrorists had higher levels of aggression and lower levels of emotion recognition than non-criminals. However, no differences were found between the groups for IQ or executive functioning. The biggest difference between the terrorists and the other group was seen in moral cognition – they found that terrorists are guided by an abnormal over-reliance on outcomes. The authors argue that this distorted moral reasoning – that the ends justify the means – is the “hallmark” of a terrorist mindset. They assessed moral judgement by asking participants to rate various stories according to levels of unjustified aggression.
 
The results are intriguing and seem intuitive. But we cannot be sure that this profile wasn’t a result of their incarceration – we know that prison distorts cognition. If not, was it present from birth or did it develop in the run up to becoming part of a terrorist group?
 
These questions cannot be answered, yet they are fundamental. Headline statements from high-profile research of this nature can be misleading and counter-productive. Despite its appeal, there is no scientific support for the idea that terrorists are psychopaths or have a personality disorder. Often research is contradictory – some researchers argue that their findings show terrorists to be suicidal while others claim they are extrovert, unstable, uninhibited, aggressive, defensive or narcissistic.
 
In fact, psycho-pathological behaviours are more likely to conflict with a terrorist agenda than aid it – it after all relies on commitment, motivation and discipline.

The psychology of radicalisation

Many psychologists believe that the events which occur in the years before a terrorist attack, referred to as radicalisation, offer most in terms of trying to answer why a person might turn to political violence. However, the psychology of terrorism is not well advanced. There is little empirical evidence to support existing conceptual models – and they are often limited to particular extremist groups and ideologies.
 
More and more psychologists are now beginning to believe that a number of key psychological components are fundamental to the radicalisation process. These include motivation, group ideologies and social processes that encourage progressive distancing from former friends, for example. Rather than measuring to predict, we might be better off devoting resources to improve understanding of what motivates individuals to join the ranks of violent extremists. Is it the fundamental human need to matter that makes people seek out others who share their reality? Psychological evidence indicates the quest for significance may indeed be an important driver of extremist behaviour.
 
Accepting that prediction may never be possible because of the complex, evolving nature of terrorism might improve the nature of research in this domain. Quality psychological research aimed at searching for markers of the radicalisation process, such as changes in dress, behaviour and social circles – which appear to have been present in the case of Abedi and others – may be fruitful. Indeed de-radicalisation schemes are increasingly important in the fight against terrorism.
 
Luckily, the more we find out about terrorists’ quest for significance the better we can understand the identity and social issues that are fundamental to radicalisation. So there’s every reason to be optimistic that psychology can be a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism.
 
Originally published in The Conversation.

Quick Reads

Calling time. The abdication of Japan’s Emperor Akihito due to age should prompt us to consider making it easier for our Queen to retire from public office. Constitution Unit
 
As promised. What each party’s manifesto means for local government. NLGN
 
Breaking point. There isn’t a single one for the NHS, but care is difficult to access, staff are in short supply, and outside England, “real terms spending has...been roughly flat per person since 2010”. Nuffield Trust
 
Pick a programme. All parties want to reduce the national debt - but there are genuine fiscal choices on offer from the major parties this election. Resolution Foundation

Reports

Some MPs aren’t on social media. But that’s not going to stop their constituents from trying to engage with them there. New forms of civic discourse online pose three challenges. First, MPs might get overwhelmed by the noise. Second, how electors express their views online may be difficult for their representatives to understand and prioritise politically. Finally, online behaviour creates new expectations in the relationships between constituents and MPs. So what are the opportunities? Increased two-way communication is now possible using existing social media, which can start to close the gap between MPs and their constituents. A bit of geographic targeting can help MPs focus on their constituencies and do the representation part of their job better. However, are there already too many platforms for participation to meaningfully engage with? Demos
 
More or less. UK charities have been thinking hard about how they have an impact. But a survey of 300 charity leaders, validated by interviews and discussions, finds that many reject the charity idea - seeing their organisation as a “cause” or “part of a broader movement”. They feel a pressure to reinvent themselves to keep up - and most expect to be doing the same or more activities in three years. There are financial pressures to prioritise, leading to two main learning strategies: research and impact measurement, and taking risks and learning from them. However, only 19 per cent of charities made major changes as a result of learning from peers, and only 45 per cent of charities partner up to achieve their mission “at least sometimes.” More than a third of charities surveyed were delivering public sector contracts. However, “there are crises brewing”: the state withdrawing from service provision, but maintaining a “paternalistic” approach to the sector. That’s not going to stop charities of all kinds doing more public-facing campaigns (37 per cent) and trying to influence policy (32 per cent). New Philanthropy Capital
 
Holding back. The current Conservative government would increase public sector wages by 1 per cent through 2019-20. Pay restraint since 2011 means that in 2016­–17, average public sector pay was 13% higher than private sector pay - the same as before the crisis. This affects a workforce that has declined by 8 per cent since 2010. The risk is that 1.6 million NHS employees, 1.5 million workers in the education sector, and 1 million public administrators will go elsewhere: “making it harder to deliver high quality public services”. In their manifestos, the Liberal Democrats pledge to link pay to inflation, and Labour propose to delegate rates of pay to independent Pay Review Bodies.  This could get costly: if the wage-setters chose to match private sector pay rises, a Labour government would be paying an additional £6.3 billion per year to departments by 2019-20. A Liberal Democrat government would need to find an additional £4.1 billion by then. No improvement on pay, the IFS suggest, might be a false economy: services may deteriorate if good staff leave. Institute for Fiscal Studies

See also

Turning tide? The UK government still leads the world on releasing open data, but there are “worrying changes in policy”, and not just here. Civil Service World
 
“I suspect the Brits are livid”. Stop leaking intelligence we’ve shared to the press, the Home Secretary tells American partners. Government Executive
 
State capture. “The Conservative leadership is waving Disraeli’s hat but it is still wearing Milton Friedman’s trousers.” LSE Politics and Policy
 
Guerilla lanes. Riga city authorities have been stalling on placing cycle lanes on the city’s main thoroughfare. Cycling activists did it themselves. CityLab

Jobs

Parliamentary and Public Affairs Manager (Part-time). Equality and Human Rights Commission. London. £22+2k. Apply by 30 May.
 
Deputy Directors, System Redesign and Delivery, Health and Social Services department. States of Jersey. Jersey. £71-78k. Apply by 31 May.
 
Communications Assistant. Local Government Association. London. £29k. Apply by 2 June.
 
Senior Policy Officer. Information Commissioner's Office. Wilmslow, Cheshire. £31k. Apply by 5 June.
 
Technology Policy Advisor. Government Digital Service. London. £31-38k. Apply by 11 June.
 
Chief Executive. The Young Foundation. London. £90k. Apply by 16 June.
 
Senior Economist. Bright Blue. London. Apply by 24 June.

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