The 23-year-old Nigerian who boarded an international flight for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear on Christmas Day reminded many people of the important lessons they learned from Sept. 11. Terrorism attracts worldwide attention again. Many people, especially the psychologists, start to think more about the motivation of terrorism and solution to it. What do the terrorists who attempted to strike U.S. territory in common? What is the allure of terrorism? Is religion the only reason?
Without systematic testing and empirical data it would be hubris to conclude that any social psychological model offers a solution in the fight against terror. Nevertheless, psychologists are trying to understand the motivation of terrorism from different perspectives. For example, in seeking to understand terrorism as an outcome of group identities and intergroup conflict, psychologists seek to understand the dynamics of heroic self-sacrifice and loyal commitment among actors who at the same time direct horrific violence to unwitting targets. They seek to evaluate terrorists’ motivations by solidarity with in-group members under threat, by passionate struggles against injustice, by complex learned and intuited political calculations, and by emergent group identities and norms.
For example, according to social identity theory, individuals are proposed to have not only identities as individuals but also identities as social groups. As people identify themselves as group members they can become motivated to see that group as distinct from and better than other groups. When people identify with a group in conflict, a self-sacrificing action may be seen as psychologically beneficial even though the action leads to harmful consequences on an individual level, because the action benefits the group which is a part of themselves. It is group norms for appropriate behavior which in turn shape beliefs about the benefit or cost to the group of actions such as terrorism (Louis, 2009).