Empowering cartoonists, deterring killers, protecting bystanders: Can psychology contribute?

We respond on many levels, like our readers, to the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo staff in France. The human tragedy makes us sad and angry. The moral atrocity screams for outraged condemnation. The sense of threat calls out community determination, courage, and sacrifice. The counter-mobilisation of millions, and of world leaders, evokes pride and grim satisfaction. 

At the same time, we are professionally interested as psychologists of group conflict in this terrorist attack and its aftermath. Taking the point of view of someone trying to bring about a world jihad (not our own point of view, but possibly the terrorists’), it looks like it might have worked well. The tremendous international attention to the terrorists and their stated cause; the presumably gratifying spectacle of European grief, fear and anger; the reactive flowering of anti-Muslim prejudice; the empowerment of European right wing militants; the internal marginalisation of moderate Muslim leaders; all of this should promote further conflict and extremism, all other things being equal. However, the effectiveness of any terror attack depends upon the reactions of authorities and targets. From the target group’s perspective, it seems to us that we should work towards reducing the effectiveness of the attacks. Are there lessons from psychology to be drawn about what will work well vs poorly in counter-terrorism?

There are many, and scholars do not always agree; the references at the end of this article outline a range of views. From our own perspective, we will highlight one thing done well and one change that we would like to see, in future national and international responses to terror.

Keep the definitions narrow: The conflict vs terror, not Islam. Most world leaders have been at pains not to identify the terrorists as Islamic, and to highlight the peacefulness of Muslims.In contrast, some conservatives’ angry Tweets or op eds have put the onus onto all Muslims to prove by explicit comment that they reject the terrorist approach. Which approach will reduce terror more?

There is an evidence basis to applaud authorities’ narrower definition of the enemy here. Logically, as In Mind readers will already be aware, it is the case that even though very many modern terrorists are Muslims, hardly any Muslims are terrorists. Calling on Muslims to take responsibility for stating that they are not terrorists is like calling on Catholics in the days of the Irish Republican Army to take responsibility for stating they are not terrorists. It is offensive and ignores the base-rates: there are thousands if not millions of the former for every one of the latter.

Tactically, there are millions of Muslims who are opposed to US or European foreign policy, or who are deeply implicated in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in which the US or Europe has taken sides. There are others still who are pursuing a jihad – in the sense of whole-hearted struggle – to change the world towards an idealised Islamic state.  Acknowledging the reality that there are millions of Muslim political opponents of the status quo, or millions of spiritual warriors for religious change, is important, and so is acknowledging that they are determined yet peaceful in their views. Positioning terrorists as the representatives and leaders of this large group of political opponents or spiritual activists wrongly gives the terrorists political and religious status and power.  It denies the legitimate leadership of moderate Muslims and radical non-violent Muslims, disempowering them.  Presenting terrorism as if it is common and supported by most Muslims could even create a counter-productive descriptive norm which means terror is more likely to spread.  Thus authorities should continue to keep the definitions of the enemy narrow and the outgroup small. 

Promote and reward political alternatives to terror: On another level, a point about political terror which we are frustrated to see often neglected is that people pick up the gun, the ballot paper, or the pen in the context of others’ actions. In a given historical period, there is a dynamic link between state repression and the popularity of terror. This contextualisation of terror in relation to other political tactics highlights two findings of psychological research that could inform counter-terrorism approaches.

First, illegitimate attacks reinforce the behaviour they target: there is a strong human motive to resist coercion, particularly at the group level. The terror attack on cartoonists will increase the uptake of cartooning in France. The use of murder to challenge the cartoon depiction of Mohammed has already, predictably, increased the prevalence of such depictions. So too militarist violence and repression against terrorists may increase terror. Of relevance to the campaign against ISIS/ISIL in particular, it seems clear that as long as innocent parties continue to be killed and non-violent Muslims continue to be repressed in the name of anti-terror campaigns, then anti-terror campaigns are not only not likely to reduce terror, they are likely to spread it. 

Second, the leaders building an arsenal of anti-terror choices must collectively address the desired alternative behaviour for their political opponents, and reinforce that alternative. One of the reasons why a particular collective action is chosen is if other behaviours are perceived not to work. Along with others, we have argued that if non-violent Muslim leaders win power democratically (for example, in Egypt), and their overthrow in a coup is tolerated or even funded, it sends a negative signal about the utility of pursuing social change in the Middle East through the democratic process. In addition, funding repressive regimes which kill and imprison innocents, while decrying such practices, also leads to being seen as hypocritical. The longstanding toleration of torture, prisoner abuse, and detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere undermines the credibility of advice to work within the rule of law. In short, even though the motive for supporting political repression, militarist violence, or abuse of the legal process may be a genuine desire to protect against terror, we believe these approaches sow the seeds of future violence, creating a dysfunctional longer-term dynamic.

We are at pains to say that there is no quid pro quo. All terror attacks are wrong and all victims’ murders abhorrent. The victims of Charlie Hebdo, the people of France, and the world deserve the opportunity for collective grieving, and they deserve the acknowledgement and condemnation of their attackers’ barbarism. There is no moral calculus in which a lack of attention to the deaths of some justifies the murderous attack on others, or one country’s support of murder here justifies attacking civilians there.

There are also Yemeni, Pakistani, or Nigerian victims of terror; there are Indonesians; there are Syrian and Iraqi victims. Their deaths deserve grieving and their lives deserve celebrating too.  There is a moral issue, and there is a clear feedback loop which is arguably reinforcing future terror: on either account, the moral and human rights abuses in the Middle East and elsewhere must be resisted. Militarist violence that props up one abusive power to hold down another must give way to other mechanisms of dispute resolution. Funding for state agents of terror must be withdrawn. Consistent accountability to international law and to war crimes tribunals must be established. These of course are political statements, but they are also recommendations for counter-terrorism policy – recommendations which, we believe, have an evidence basis in psychological research.


Crelinsten, R. D. (2002). Analysing terrorism and counter-terrorism: A communication model. Terrorism and Political Violence, 14(2), 77-122.

Ginges, J., Atran, S., Sachdeva, S., & Medin, D. (2011). Psychology out of the laboratory: the challenge of violent extremism. American Psychologist, 66(6), 507.

Louis, W. R. (2009).  If they’re not crazy, then what?  The implications of social psychological approaches to terrorism for conflict management.  In W. Stritzke, S. Lewandowsky, D. Denemark, F. Morgan, & J. Clare (Eds.), Terrorism and Torture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, pp. 125-153.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Louis, W. R., & Taylor, D. M. (2002).  Understanding the September 11th terrorist attack on America:  The role of intergroup theories of normative influence.  Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2, 87-100. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2002.00029.x

Moghaddam, Fathali (2005). The Staircase to Terrorism. American Psychologist 60 (2): 161–169. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.60.2.161.