Teaching and Learning Guide for: Terrorism, Identity, and Conflict Management



This guide accompanies the following article: Louis, W. R., Terrorism, Identity, and Conflict Management. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3/4 (2009): 433–446, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00184.x

Author’s Introduction

On an applied level, understanding the antecedents of terrorism is of great interest to potential targets. This applied foundation is probably the primary driver of the exponential increase in terrorism research in the West after 9/11! But on a theoretical level, the study of terrorism is arguably even more important. Social psychologists are fascinated by the ways in which ordinary processes of social influence and group identification can produce extreme forms of behaviour. In seeking to understand terrorism as an outcome of group identities and intergroup conflict, we 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. We 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.

Author Recommends

On group processes and terrorism

1. McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2008). Mechanisms of political radicalization: Pathways toward terrorism. Terrorism & Political Violence, 20(3), 415–433.

This article by terrorism expert McCauley and colleague systematically explores 12 key processes which underpin support for terror, and identifies 10 of the 12 as linked to the relationship between group identification and perceptions of threat to the in-group. One critical component of McCauley’s argument is that political radicalization occurs within a dynamic of action and reaction in which actions by the target state often play a key role. To quote the authors, ‘Radicalization emerges in a relationship of intergroup competition and conflict in which both sides are radicalized’ (p. 430).

2. (a) Moghaddam, F. M. (2008). How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of “One World” and why that Fuels Violence. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

In this recent book, and his earlier thoughtful and compelling research and writing, Moghaddam articulates both the threats posed by the modern world context to some Muslims, the stages by which potential terrorist threats develop, and the broader context of threat to world cultures and diversity. In part three of the book, Moghaddam engages with potential long-term solutions, focusing particularly on the role of women and the nature of the family in traditional Islamic societies.

(b) Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The staircase to terrorism: A psychological exploration. American Psychologist, 60(2), 161–169.

This shorter and earlier article by the author focuses specifically on the processes which lead some twenty-first-century Muslims to commit or support terrorist acts.

3. Post, J. M. (2005). When hatred is bred in the bone: Psycho-cultural foundations of contemporary terrorism. Political Psychology, 4, 615–636.

Post is well known in counter-terrorism research and his many articles and book chapters are all well worth reading. In this particular article, he argues against universalist models of the psychology of terrorism, and makes a case for particularist models that seek to understand each conflict as unique, and examine the constellation of variables that uniquely define each conflict. As with Post’s other works, recommendations for successful counter-terrorism are also discussed.

4. Sageman, M. (2008). A strategy for fighting international Islamist terrorists. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 618(1), 223–231.

I would encourage students interested in the social psychology of terror to expand their reading lists to the closely related and relevant work in other social sciences. A particularly important writer who is intelligible to social psychologists is Mark Sageman. In this paper, for example, Sageman talks about a model of radicalization focusing on processes such as moral outrage, linked in with personally relevant grievances, and channelled through group dynamics.

On social identity approaches to decision-making in conflict

1. Louis, W. R., Taylor, D. M., & Douglas, R. L. (2005). Normative influence and rational conflict decisions: Group norms and cost-benefit analyses for intergroup behaviour. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 8(4), 355–374.

In this paper, we explore the inter-relationship of social influence and cost-benefit calculations, showing that when people identify with groups in conflict, people’s perceptions of what benefits the self are driven by perceptions of what benefits or harms the group, and these in turn are influenced by perceptions of in- and out-group norms for the behaviour.

2. Simon, B., & Ruhs, D. (2008). Identity and politicization among Turkish migrants in Germany: The role of dual identification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1354–1366.

Recent work in social psychology addresses the importance of understanding identity as relational, so that the effects of one identity vary depending on whether other identities are also salient and strong. In this important study, Bernd Simon and his colleague show that support for radical organizations and political violence is low among Turkish migrants who embrace both a strong Turkish identity and a strong German identity. The ‘dual identity’ model predicts, fostering a multi-cultural approach in which people identify strongly with minority cultures and national groups may be an effective deterrent to political radicalization and violence.

3. (a) Hornsey, M. J. (2008). Social identity theory and self-categorization theory: A historical review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(1), 204–222.

Matthew Hornsey’s popular earlier Compass article gives a great introduction to social identity theory, its key components, and relevant research.

(b) Hogg, M. A., & Smith, J. R. (2007). Attitudes in social context: A social identity perspective. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 89–131; doi: 10.1080/10463280701592070.

An in-depth review of the social identity approach to attitudes more broadly is provided in this article by well-known social identity researchers Michael Hogg and ever-brilliant Joanne R. Smith. The central argument of the social identity approach – that our sense of ourselves as group members both shapes our attitudes and creates the context in which people either are or are not willing to act on their attitudes – is thoroughly reviewed, and relevant supporting research is described.

4. Thomas, E.F., McGarty, C.G., & Mavor, K.I. (2009). Aligning identities, emotions, and beliefs to create commitment to sustainable social and political action. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 194–218.

This recent fascinating theoretical paper explores the formation of links between social identities and particular forms of collective action. In this model, group emotions such as anger or pride, perceptions of collective efficacy, and evaluations of and commitment to action are understood as one normative constellation, contributing to a dynamic system of meaning that motivates ongoing commitment to a cause.

Online Materials


Teaching Terror is an American website with an enormous number of helpful links and resources about the study of terror, coping with terror, and how these can be covered in the classroom. A comprehensive set of links for syllabi are also available here.


This is a link to the website of the society for terrorism research, an international, multi-disciplinary organization of theoretical and empirical researchers. The society has a journal called Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression which may be linked to from the site. Other important interdisciplinary journals for terrorism research are Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/tf/1057610X.html), and Terrorism and Political Violence (http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/09546553.asp).

Finally, for professors, both YouTube (<http://www.youtube.com>) and Google images (http://images.google.com) are great ways to find visual material to use in teaching, as many already know! If you type in the search term ‘terrorism’ you can find a number of clips and photos to inspire, revolt, or provoke your students. These clips can be discussed in class in relation to how they embody the ideas outlined in the articles listed.

Sample Syllabus

Week X: Group Processes and Twenty-First-Century Terrorism

Political violence and terrorism are often forms of collective action and therefore occur as outcomes of group processes such as identification and normative influence. This week we explore how terrorism can evolve based on ‘normal’ dynamics of social identity and intergroup conflict.


Louis, W. R. (2009). Terrorism, identity, and conflict management. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3/4, 433–446; doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2009.00184.x

McCauley, C., & Moskalenko, S. (2008). Mechanisms of political radicalization: Pathways toward terrorism. Terrorism & Political Violence, 20(3), 415–433.

Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The staircase to terrorism: A psychological exploration. American Psychologist,60(2), 161–169.

Post, J. M. (2005). When hatred is bred in the bone: Psycho-cultural foundations of contemporary terrorism. Political Psychology,4, 615–636.

Focus Questions

1. Are people who commit terror crazy? Discuss.

2. What processes promote or inhibit support for terror in activist or military groups?

3. What are some processes linked to identity which make counter-terrorism interventions by targets of terror more likely to fail or succeed?

4. What are some of the factors promoting the spread of terrorism in the twenty-first century?

5. How could we develop a campaign to reduce support for political violence (or terror more broadly)?

Seminar/Project Idea – Focus on Counter-Terror

1. Theoretical analysis and application of past research: Students could be asked to research and describe counter-terrorism strategies for their own nation alone, or their own nation, and one other country. They should analyze these strategies from a social psychological perspective, and identify three psychological outcomes which would be expected to flow on from the policy as it stands. Students must explain why these outcomes are expected based on previous social psychological research and theory. What is the best outcome which can be expected based on this policy? What is the worst plausible outcome? Students should make three recommendations for improving the counter-terrorism policy, again using social psychological research to provide a rationale for their recommendations.

2. Research design: Students should design a research project to evaluate the effects of a counter-terrorism campaign. The proposal should identify the sample to be studied [e.g., members of the group which is the target of terrorism, versus the terrorists’ constituents (the people the terrorists are acting on behalf of), versus bystanders and third parties, versus terrorists themselves]. Perhaps, students could be assigned to discuss the effects on two out of four of these parties, or all four of them. Hypotheses should be derived from previous research, and implications of particular patterns of results for theory and practice should be discussed.