02 April 2010

Mapping the Militant-Extremist Mindset

About a year ago, we reported here at SGSAC on a study attempting to identify key themes that might characterize a militant-extremist mindset. Gerard Saucier (University of Oregon) and his colleagues pored through numerous documents and extracted sixteen themes. Members of that same research team - this time led by Lazar Stankov (National Institute of Education in Singapore) - have continued this line of inquiry and spotted three central "psychological ingredients of the militant extremist mindset."

They started with a list of 56 statements they extracted from various materials produced by and about terrorists. The statements were presented to 2,424 college students (more than half of whom were female, average age of 21) from North America (USA), Eastern Europe (Serbia, Slovakia, Belarus), Latin America (Chile, Guatemala), and Asia (Malaysia, South Korea, China). They forthrightly note: "Needless to say, this sampling framework limits the generalization of the present findings beyond the student population." An important point, to be sure.

Students rated their agreement with each of the 56 militant-extremist statements on a 5-point Likert-type scale, from "strongly and completely disagree" to "strongly and completely agree." They also completed a measure of personality, a measure of social attitudes, and a measure of values.

Their first step was was to conduct an exploratory factor analysis of the items to see whether and how they might cluster together into themes. Thirty six of the statements seemed to fit within three general factors. The researcher examined the content of the items in each factor and removed twelve additional statements that seemed not to fit with the others in their cluster (factor). This left 24 items for further analysis - revealing the following three underlying factors:

  • Proviolence: (statements indicating acceptance of, justification, and even advocacy of the use of violence in certain circumstances like revenge or to gain redemption)
  • Vile World: (statements indicating there is something importantly wrong with the world in which we live)
  • Divine Power: (statements referencing a divine power, heaven and God - role of martyrdom and rewards in the afterlife)

The three factors were fairly distinct and independent of each other. There was a modest correlation between VIle World and Divine Power.

They conclude "on the basis of our findings, we can say that an extremist militant mindset consists of three main ingredients:

"first there is a belief that violence is not only an option, but it may be a useful means to achieve one's personal and social goals."

"there needs to be an 'enemy' such as the West or a belief in a corrupt of Vile World that is perceived as the cause of suffering of the group to which the person belongs.

"violence needs to be sanctioned by someone, perhaps by a superior power (Divine Power/God).

Next, the items were composed as scales (Alpha coefficients .74-.80). While there was a broader range of views about (and item endorsement for) Vile World and Divine Power, only a small proportion (3.5% of the overall sample) scored "unusually high" on the Proviolence dimension.

The Divine Power dimension seemed to simply be a measure of tradition-oriented religious beliefs. It did not seem to contain anything unique - by itself - as a facet of a militant extremist mindset.

The Proviolence dimension was strongly related to social attitudes supporting unmitigated pursuit of self-interest, to personality disintegration, and power as a value. It was negatively related to positive personality traits and to values of benevolence, self-direction and universalism.

Demographic differences: There were few differences between men and women on Vile World or Divine Power beliefs, but men did tend to score significantly higher on Proviolence.

Between-Country differences: Respondent from the Asian countries tended to have somewhat higher Proviolence scores (though not indicating widespread endorsement of violence) than those in the other countries. Respondents from Serbia and Malysia tended to score higher than others on Vile World, while Chinese respondents had the lowest scores on this scale.

The authors are clear that the objective of their research is not to develop a measure to identify terrorists. That's an important point to make, I think. Also, to their credit, they readily acknowledge the limitations of using a college student sample.

While these three dimensions may not seem surprising, this is a line of research that has not been empirically investigated before - at least in this way. The multi-national sample also enhances the merit of its contribution - though we must continue to be cautious about not stereotyping people's beliefs just by their national citizenship (e.g., people from country X believe Y).

The study also raises a potentially interesting set of questions about how those factors might operate to facilitate or constrain violent extremist activity. About 50 years ago, Rokeach advanced the notion of "dogmatism," which he characterized as having a closed cognitive system, authoritarian bent (or absolute adherence to a source of authority), and intolerance. The interactions of those components can produce a different result than any one of them individually.

This might also turn out to be true for understanding the militant extremist mindset. The elements may not just be additive (more of them, resulting in greater militancy), but they may actually interact with or be conditioned on one another in ways that illuminate cognitive pathways or patterns (note the plural) toward ideologically or politically-motivated violence.

ResearchBlogging.orgStankov, L., Saucier, G., & Knežević, G. (2010). Militant extremist mind-set: Proviolence, Vile World, and Divine Power. Psychological Assessment, 22 (1), 70-86 DOI: 10.1037/a0016925