In recent years, social scientists who want to understand the causes of terrorism have explored the role of group dynamics. That is, rather than exploring the psychology and circumstances of each individual group member, they study how individuals function in relation to each other, and the role of group identity in motivating members to commit terrorist violence.
A recent study by Allison G. Smith published in the International Society of Political Psychology (vol. 29, no. 1) explores this dynamic by comparing the documents issued by terrorist groups to those issued by non-violent groups with the same belief system. In "The Implicit Motives of Terrorist Groups: How Needs for Affiliation and Power Translate in to Death and Destruction," she compared them by using 'content analysis,' a systematic form of reading in which words and phrases are coded so that they can be quantified, and so that documents can be compared in a systematic way.
Dr. Smith bases her study on a relatively new area of social psychology called Social Identity Theory. This theory holds that when we – any of us – value our role in a social group, we "undergo a process of depersonalization" and see ourselves as exchangeable with other group members. This identification tends to make us more predisposed to those we think of as insiders, and more hostile to those who we see as outsiders.
She also points out that Freud, the father of modern psychology, had complementary views about our role in groups. In Freud's view, we all have two basic drives, one toward life and connections with others and one toward death and destruction. Dr. Smith explains Freud's view that groups offer people the opportunity to satisfy both instincts, by connecting with insiders and through hostility to outsiders (this shared hostility also binds members of the group together).
These qualities of social identification are not specific to terrorist groups. All kinds of groups create identities for their members by offering the opportunity to identify with insiders and distinguish themselves from outsiders. Families, organized religion, the companies or organizations we work for, political parties, and cliques we form out of shared interest work this way. However, none of these sorts of groups push members to commit violence.
Group Language as a Possible Predictor of Violent Behavior
What then, is special about terrorist (or other violent) groups? Dr. Smith hypothesizes that members of terrorist groups may show a higher degree of both affiliation with insiders and hostility toward outsiders than those in non-violent groups.
Smith suggests that these qualities can be found in the rhetoric of documents such as speeches and written statements. Their imagery and the kind of rhetoric they used was then used, and compared to the speech of non-violent groups with a similar belief system or ideology.
In all, Smith examined 13 cases from different places and periods. These included the Klu Klux Klan and the (non-violent)Southern Democratic party in the late 19th century U.S.; the Pan Africanist Congress and the (non-violent) African National Congress in mid-20th century South Africa; the Shining Path and the (non-violent) United Left in Peru in the 1980s and the transnational Al Qaeda and the (non-violent) Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia in the 1990s.Documents were examined both before and after terrorist activity to see whether it would be possible to see whether a group is moving toward terrorist activity.
Terrorist Groups Have Strong Internal Connections, but Language Does Not Necessarily Predict Violence
Smith's conclusions generally support her hypothesis that terrorist groups demonstrate a high level of 'ingroup' affiliation. In contrast, groups that do not resort to violence to achieve their political ends are more likely to use affiliation motive imagery to "blur the line between us and them."
The use of power motive imagery is more murky. Terrorist groups used more power motive imagery – statements that indicated the desire to create an impact on circumstances. However, non-violent groups also use such imagery and their power-driven rhetoric doesn't mean they are headed toward violence.
Smith does not offer content analysis of affiliation and power motive imagery as a stand-alone method for predicting violence at all, and acknowledges that there are limitations in comparing terrorist and non-violent groups even in the same time and place. However, she does offer that it will continue to be valuable to study how groups express their affiliations, and whether they direct them toward insiders or outsiders, when seeking to understand them.
The conclusion that hostile language does not necessarily predict violent behavior may not surprise the artists and writers among us. Artists have long used the symbolic ritual of art as a non-violent way to express and channel human aggression.