by Dustin Kieschnick
The recent years have seen an increase in prevalence of terrorist attacks in the US and Western Europe, most notable of which were perpetrated by loyalists to the Islamic State. The violent behavior with disregard for, and rather, targeting of non-combatants is particularly alarming and leaves confusion around the types of individuals that engage in and are attracted to extremism. In psychology, focus tends to be oriented on the motivations of behavior rather than the behavior itself. Thus, frameworks have been developed in psychology to understand the function of behavior. Theoretically, all people’s behavior serves a particular function, either for that person or for the group they are a part of. Hence, the key to understanding motivations of extremism and terrorism begins with changing the frame of relation to it. Two frameworks, in particular, provide a basis for examining extremist motivations, Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA) and Terror Management Theory (TMT). FBA examines from a micro or individual level, while TMT examines the dynamics of cultural context. Both theories can overlap, and at the same time can provide a solid framework for understanding the nature of extremism.
The premise of FBA is that behavior is influenced by antecedents that precede it and consequences that follow. To diagram, A-->B-->C, where A is antecedent, B is behavior, and C is consequence. Of note is that although consequence is commonly associated with negative valence, in this context consequence refers to either positive or negative result of behavior for the individual. In other words, consequence includes avoiding a negative result or pursing a positive one. Although the framework appears simple, the exploration of it can become inherently more complicated. Often the first step within this framework is to identify a behavior, and in this case the example behavior will be the act of joining an extremist or terrorist group. This behavior is commonly associated to be the result of recruitment by the extremist group. However, this can fail to take into account a number of antecedents. The recruitment message is only successful when the individual targeted finds value in the message. Antecedents to behavior include many potential influencing factors. Common antecedent factors for joining an extremist group could include: limited economic opportunity, discrimination, difficult or chaotic childhood, identification with aspects of the extremist group, social influence, etc.In fact, Dr. John Horgan, at Pennsylvania State University’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, in studies that interviewed over 60 former terrorists, identified the following factors for joining an extremist group:
A comparative example would be viewing from the perspective of an inner-city adolescent or young adult who decides to join a street gang. Often anger or frustration at lack of opportunity, or even growing up in a violent or chaotic environment can serve to normalize the activities that are associated with gangs. Another, perhaps less popular example, is viewing from the lens of someone enlisting in the US Military. Often this is preceded by a recruitment, which is facilitated by a spectrum of factors, such as idealism, belief in a cause, lack of opportunity, or simply social contagion (for example, my buddy is enlisting, or a person I respect is enlisting, and they convinced me to do it). Once the decision is made to enlist, the set of antecedents, behaviors, and consequences shifts on the basis of how the enlistee responds to the next experience. Similar to joining the military, enlistment in an extremist group is made on a prediction or expectation of the experience, which either meets, exceeds, or falls short of the pre-existing expectation. In this way, there is a parallel between the groups, in that, military members regarding the military either hate it, love it, or are indifferent to it. But these reactions are based on not knowing the reality of the context. Such are the temporal dynamics of behavioral prediction.
FBA is underlined by a convergence of psychological learning theories. Among these are respondent conditioning, operant conditioning, social learning theory, and relational frame theory. While the depth of each of these theories prevents full explanation in this work, they can help to explain the nature of antecedents and consequences in behavioral context. However, because the learning theories are somewhat siloed in their focus, they do not necessarily integrate in a clean manner. Therein lies the art of behavior analysis, in determining which theory or mix of theories best explains the antecedent or consequence.
TMT (Terror Management Theory) is a theory that can help to explain the dynamics of FBA. TMT is one of the most robust social psychology theories, having been replicated in numerous findings over a plethora of studies. The premise of TMT is that individuals tend to use psychological defenses to safeguard against the realization of mortality, in order that day to day life can continue in absence of overwhelming fear, or terror. Burke et al. (2010) posed that in regards to TMT, the potential for anxiety results from 1) awareness of death or mortality, and 2) the instinct for self-preservation. Studies have shown that faced with the realization of mortality people tend to gravitate toward their cultural identity that is most salient and following, feel closer to that group. It is worth noting that each individual is a constellation of identities, of which different aspects of identity can have more or less salience given the environmental context. These same studies have gone on to show that when faced with mortality, or even an existential threat, cultural groups tend to react with a “circling the wagons” type of response of solidarity. In this way, this response can help to illuminate the antecedents and consequences for behavior in the FBA framework.
The above explanation begs the question of how FBA ant TMT can assist in counter-terrorism practice. Through understanding the various motivations and behaviors, and subsequently the antecedents and reinforcing consequences of those behaviors, one can identify certain risk factors associated with potential extremism. It can also provide valuable insight that can be useful in intelligence collection activities, and potentially help in identifying successful de-radicalization strategies that go beyond criminal prosecution methods.
Training and proficiency in FBA involves practice at evaluating the functions of behavior, particularly from the viewpoint that behavior often makes sense in the context of the individual exhibiting it. Good practice of FBA goes beyond nominal assumption of behavioral antecedents and consequences and seeks to understand on a level that often goes un-analyzed. For example, FBA takes in to consideration that proximal or short-term consequences often hold more influential power in behavior than distal or long-term consequences. To use another example, in drug addiction, long-term consequences are often squelched by the short-term reinforcement and immediate reward of substance use behavior. In another case, danger associated with death may be squelched by the immediate reward of adrenaline rush or belief in a cause. The key to understanding terrorist extremism will come when we can understand and generalize to the point of seeing how someone close to us or ourselves could be influenced by the pull and reward of association with terrorist organizations.
Dustin Kieschnick is currently a doctoral student in clinical psychology at PGSP-Stanford PsyD Consortium. Before transitioning into psychology, Dustin was in the US Marine Corps as a counterintelligence specialist. After his military service, Dustin earned a Bachelors in Business Administration from the University of Houston, and was employed as a business analyst in one of the largest corporations in the US. Dustin is currently doing his clinical training at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital and is the co-founder of The Lodestone Trust.
Burke, B. L., Martens, A., & Faucher, E. H. (2010). Two decades of terror management theory: A meta-analysis of mortality salience research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(2), 155-195. doi:10.1177/1088868309352321
DeAngelis, T. (2009). Understanding Terrorism. Monitor on Psychology. November 2009, Vol. 40 (10), p.60.