Posted by & filed under Development of the Self, Human Development, Legal Ethical Issues, Social Psychology.

Description: Can Psychology figure out how to predict who will and who will not become a terrorist? Do you think we could do this in Psychology? What would we look at in the way of predictors? What sorts of ethical considerations might arise?

Source: Who Will Become a Terrorist? Research Yields Few Clues, Matt Apuzzo, NY Times

Date: March 27, 2016


Photo Credit: Larry Buchanon, NYTimes.

Links: Article Link

This question is most certainly a tantalizing and important one. The task is a very difficult one. The single most important consideration, beyond the ones having to do with what variables to consider is actually statistical and ethical. Think in terms of test characteristics. Assume that we were able to develop a very accurate terrorist developmental potential assessment tool. Should we use it? Well even if the tool as very accurate we are up against a statistical fact that derives from the base rate of terrorist development. It is a VERY rare event for someone to become a terrorist. That means that even a very accurate test will produce a lot of “false positives” or people identified as potential terrorists who, in fact, would NOT actually become terrorists. And therein lies the ethical issue – are we prepared to treat likely as many or perhaps many more individuals as potential terrorists, when we are wrong in order to deal with a few about whom we might be right? It’s a tricky business indeed.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What sorts of predictors might we include in our assessment designed to identify potential terrorists?
  2. How appropriate is it to focus on the development of individual potential terrorists as opposed to, say, to the social conditions that may give rise to terrorist tendencies?
  3. How do you think we should proceed given the statistical/ethical issues discussed above and in the linked article?

References (Read Further):

Krueger, A. B. (2008). What makes a terrorist: Economics and the roots of terrorism. Princeton University Press.

Krueger, A. B. (2008). What makes a homegrown terrorist? Human capital and participation in domestic Islamic terrorist groups in the USA. Economics Letters, 101(3), 293-296.


McCauley, C., Moskalenko, S., & Van Son, B. (2013). Characteristics of lone-wolf violent offenders: A comparison of assassins and school attackers. Perspectives on Terrorism, 7(1).