The Evolutionary Psychology Behind the Terrorist

jason roach
Charles Darwin’s theories on the evolution of species can also be used to gain an understanding of the development and functioning of the human mind, especially decision-making – including the psychological factors that lead to violent terrorism. This is explored in a new book co-edited and written by Dr Jason Roach, who is Reader in Crime and Policing at the University of Huddersfield.

He is also behind a burgeoning network of international experts in the field of evolutionary psychology and security. It has held its inaugural meeting at University College London and future plans include a series of conferences possibly to be held at the universities of Huddersfield, Connecticut, Wellington and Georgia.

Dr Jason Roach co-edits a new book that analyses the mind of the terrorist

“The ways in which academics, as well as policy-makers think about terrorism often remains incredibly narrow, and siloed into rigid disciplines such as political science, criminology and psychology.” said Dr Roach. “If we are to understand terrorism and the terrorist better, then we academics need to broaden our approach and approach the phenomenon from different perspectives and consider much wider influences than we currently do.”

The new book is Evolutionary Psychology and Terrorism, published by Routledge. Dr Roach’s co-editors are Max Taylor, who was Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews and is now a Visiting Professor at University College London, as is the eminent criminologist, Professor Ken Pease, the third co-editor.

Fifteen authors have contributed to the book’s eight chapters, which cover different dimensions of terrorism and the fear it spreads. The aim is to challenge many existing ideas and show how adopting an evolutionary psychology can lead to a fresh understanding of terrorism.

For example, most suicide bombers are young men, and evolutionary psychology can be used to find explanations for this, said Dr Roach.

“Some evolutionary psychologists argue that young men are hard-wired to be less risk-adverse than older folks. Testosterone, for example, may help young men to take the sort of risks which might ‘attract the girls’, but it also makes them more susceptible to influence by other males, who are usually older. That is why you will find that it is younger males who do the suicide bombing, but the direction comes from older men.”

How we respond in the wake of an attack

Dr Roach and colleagues have also researched the response of people when they hear or see acts of terrorism in the media. For example, in the wake of the London bombings in 2005, the number of young people who went clubbing in the capital in July 2005 actually increased, where for the rest of the country it did not. Again, evolutionary psychology could explain this counter-intuitive behaviour, by suggesting that in times of great fear and danger, those closest to the threat congregate in large numbers for safety, rather than staying at home.

“Watch Zebra or antelope on any wildlife documentary programme and you’ll see them congregate round the watering hole when the threat of predators is acute,” said Dr Roach. A different species and context admittedly, but the resulting behaviour caused by fear of predation is the same.”

“These young people were willing to take risks because they haven’t yet passed on their genes. So the effect of terrorism is instant but quite limited, as we found no evidence that young people in the rest of the country went out clubbing more immediately after the 7th July bombings, only those in London and the Home Counties.”

Understanding terrorism

Some of the ideas in the book and those which will emerge from the newly-launched Evolutionary Psychology and Security International Network might be of value to policy-makers in the field of counter-terrorism, but that is not the only objective said Dr Roach.

“Understanding terrorism, those who engage in it and those who respond to it, more fully is equally important, but we are actually marketing the network as policy free, because we feel that so much of terrorism research is policy driven, meaning that it is quite restricted in its scope.”

By contrast, the turn to evolutionary psychology allows a wide range of disciplines and theories to be introduced to the field, and for terrorism and security to be better understood by incorporating different levels of causal influence ranging from; evolutionary or ‘ultimate causes’ (such as kinship protection and sexual selection); to distal causes (such as childhood experiences) through to the proximal influence on an act (such as ideological motivation and the selection of targets). For explanations for an act could be found as to why certain locations were selected for attack; and how the childhood and the upbringing of bombers might have contributed to their decision to cause death and destruction. Dr Roach suggests that “there is no ‘one-size fits all’ explanation for why someone becomes a terrorist”.

“We can get a bigger picture by looking at things more from a historical dimension than the immediate,” said Dr Roach. “Why would a person commit an act of violence against lots of other people? What’s the evolutionary angle there?”

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