Understanding terrorism

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Psychologists are amassing more concrete data on the factors that lead some people to terrorism—and using those insights to develop ways to thwart it.
Determining what drives people to terrorism is no easy task. For one thing, terrorists aren’t likely to volunteer as experimental subjects, and examining their activities from afar can lead to erroneous conclusions. What’s more, one group’s terrorist is another group’s freedom fighter, as the millions of Arabs who support Palestinian suicide bombers will attest.
Given these complexities, the psychology of terrorism is marked more by theory and opinion than by good science, researchers admit. But a number of psychologists are starting to put together reliable data. They’re finding it is generally more useful to view terrorism in terms of political and group dynamics and processes than individual ones, and that universal psychological principles—such as our subconscious fear of death and our desire for meaning and personal significance—may help to explain some aspects of terrorist actions and our reactions to them.
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