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The rational choice theory of terrorism

Dr. Simon Moss


The rational choice theory of terrorism assumes that terrorist acts usually emanate from rational, calculated, conscious decisions. These decisions represent an optimal strategy to fulfill the sociopolitical goals of these perpetrators (for reviews and discussions, see Crenshaw 1992& Sandler & Lapan 1988& Victoroff, 2005& Wilson 2000). In other words, according to this theory, terrorism might not represent pathological or illogical behavior but, could, represent the best means to fulfill personal needs in some circumstances.

This theory is often applied to predict the utility of various policies. That is, this theory can be applied to ascertain whether, for example, defensive policies--such as metal detectors and other processes that increase the costs of terrorist attacks and curb the likelihood of success--or proactive measures--such as attempts to stymie resources or sponsors--are likely to be effective (Sandler & Siqueira, 2009).

The psychopathology of terrorists

In some sense, the rational choice theory of terrorism represents a reaction against the assumption that terrorism represents a psychopathology. That is, in the popular media, terrorists are often assumed to be "insane" or "psychopaths" (see also Cooper, 1978& Pearce, 1977). Although research conducted to assess this proposition is imperfect (Victoroff, 2005), the evidence tends to indicate that terrorists seldom fulfill the criteria of psychological disorders.

To illustrate, many interviews have been conducted to ascertain whether terrorists exhibit Axis I disorders, such as major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia. Axis I disorders represent all psychological disorders apart from personality disorders, which are assumed to be more enduring and entrenched. For example, Rasch (1979) interviewed 11 terrorist suspects, some of whom were members of the Red Army faction, also called the Baader Meinhof group, concluding that none exhibited any psychological disorders. He also reached the same conclusion after interviewing another 40 suspects. Post, Sprinzak, and Denny (2003) also interviewed 14 radical Islamic terrorists, operating in the Middle East, also uncovering no evidence of Axis I disorders. Similar conclusions have been reached by other researchers (e.g., Crenshaw, 1981& Horgan, 2003& Silke, 1998).

Rather than emphasize Axis I disorders, some authors maintain that terrorists might exhibit Axis II disorders, particularly antisocial personality disorder (Cooper, 1978). Nevertheless, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder would imply that individuals are motivated to harm members of their society. Yet, in contrast, many terrorists are perceived as individuals who risk their lives to enhance the welfare of their community, putatively a prosocial rather than antisocial act. This description is especially applicable to nationalist-separatist terrorists (Post, 2004). Even suicidal bombers often seem to exhibit altruistic motives, striving to serve Allah and their community (Pedahzur, Perliger, & Weinberg, 2003).

Nevertheless, some complications to these arguments need to be acknowledged. In some instances, terrorists risk their lives to support a small social group or family network. The question is whether these groups or networks are large enough to be conceptualized as an attempt to support other individuals (Victoroff, 2005).

Rather than antisocial personality disorder, terrorists might exhibit paranoia or schizoid tendencies (cf., Robins & Post, 1997). According to Post (1997, 1998, 2004), terrorism might reflect persistent splitting (see also self compartmentalization). In particular, children like to perceive some individuals, including themselves, as entirely good and other individuals as entirely bad, called splitting. This tendency curbs the anxiety that can emanate if some individuals are perceived as a mixture of positive and negative facets& children are not certain how they should respond to these individuals, and this uncertainty manifests as anxiety.

As individuals mature, splitting usually dissipates. They recognize both the positive and negative qualities in themselves and other people. In punitive or unfavorable environments, however, individuals do not evolve to accept negative qualities about themselves. Hence, they ascribe only positive events to themselves and negative events to other people. They will, thus, project these adverse traits onto other communities& they become suspicious of other individuals, justifying their actions as self defense (Robins & Post, 1997& Post, 1998).

Although many of these tenets were derived from interviews with left-wing revolutionaries (Post, 1998, 2004), paranoia was never assessed systematically and the applicability of these findings to other terrorist organizations is uncertain. Attempts to uncover paranoia have been unsuccessful. Biographies of nine from ten Muslim terrorists revealed no paranoia, according to Sageman (2004), for example.

Evolution of the rational choice theory of terrorism

The rational choice theory of terrorism emerged from economics and applied mathematics, especially game theory. Game theory attempts to represent situations in which the choices of one person or group depend on the choices of other people or groups (see Morrow, 1994& Ordeshook, 1986). Usually, but not invariably, game theory applies to instances in which individuals or groups can gain or benefit only at the expense or loss of rivals, called zero sum games.

The prototypical example is the prisoner's dilemma (see also Tucker, 2001). In this instance, two male prisoners have been accused of conspiring to commit a crime. Each prisoner is interviewed separately. A prisoner will be released if he testifies against the other person and this other person remains silent. In this instance, the person who remains silent is sentenced for 10 years. If both prisoners remain silent, however, they each receive only six months jail. If both prisoners testify against each other, they receive a 5 year sentence.

If prisoners are certain the other person will testify against them, they will obviously testify as well, to reduce the sentence from 10 to 5 years. If prisoners are not certain the other person will testify against them, they might consider remaining silent. Hence, their behavior will depend on whether they expect their co-accused to testify or not.

Relevance to terrorism

A variety of mathematical algorithms and graphical techniques are applied to understand the consequences of individuals in these situations. Sandler and Arce (2003) maintain these techniques could be applied to represent the behavior of terrorists and their targets (see also Arce & Sandler, 2005& Sandler & Siqueira, 2009& Sandler, Tschirhart, & Cauley, 1983). Specifically, according to Sandler and Arce (2003), game theory can represent the interdependence of these relationships between terrorists and other bodies--governments, supporters, the media, and so forth--and their uncertainty over how their opponent will act. Furthermore, this theory recognizes the both parties are striving to maximize their goals, subject to constraints.

Game theory assumes the players--in this instance terrorists and governments--reach rational decisions. That is, these decisions optimize the likelihood their goals will be fulfilled, at least within the existing constraints. From this perspective, although terrorism might seem abominable, these acts might represent the most practical and inexpensive means of subordinate groups to influence powerful institutions (Sandler & Enders, 2004, cited in Victoroff, 2005).

If game theory and similar choice models are applied, researchers can potentially predict the impact of government policy on terrorist behavior. They can ascertain whether terrorist acts are likely to maximize the benefits of these individuals. Nevertheless, these predictions are predicated on the capacity to ascertain the key, and often subtle, benefits, costs, and expectations that perpetrators may adopt (e.g., Sandler & Lapan. 1988).

Many variations of game theory have been applied to understand the behavior of terrorists. Most forms of game theory assume the two parties cannot influence each other, apart from demonstrating whether they tend to be cooperative or competitive. Some forms of game theory, however, recognize that other mechanisms could compel parties to comply with agreements, called cooperative game theory (for a discussion, see Sandler & Siqueira, 2009).

Evidence of the rational choice theory of terrorism

Certainly, some of the responses of terrorists seem to be intended to maximize their goals. In response to metal detectors in airports during the early 1970s, kidnapping became more prevalent then hijacking (Sandler & Arce, 2003).

Furthermore, terrorism does sometimes increase the likelihood that perpetrators will reach their sociopolitical goals. The bombings perpetrated by Irgun, a paramilitary Zionist group, facilitated the independence of Eretz Israel from the British. Terrorist attacks, committed by the IRA, expedite the formation of the Irish Free State. Furthermore, suicide bombings during the mid 1980s, perpetrated by Hezbollah, enabled Shia to control parts of Lebanon and incited the withdrawal of American, French, as well as Israeli forces. Finally, terrorist acts that were committed by the ANC hastened the dismissal of apartheid in South Africa (for a review, see Victoroff, 2005). In addition, terrorist attacks, such as September 11, seem to attract recruits (Whittaker, 2001).

Anecdotal evidence

Many anecdotal reports also contend that many members of militant, terrorist organizations seem rational and educated. Wiktorowicz (2005), for example, conducted research on members of al-Muhajiroun, a militant group in the UK that advocates violence to establish an Islamic state. Wiktorowicz maintained the young men all seemed rational.

Limitations of the rational choice theory of terrorism

Nevertheless, some of the behavior of terrorists seems to contradict this assumption that such acts represent optimal attempts to fulfill sociopolitical goals. Crenshaw (2000), for example, maintains the goals of terrorists are sometimes implausible. Their acts, therefore, will not fulfill their goals--and, thus, cannot be regarded as a rational attempt to pursue these objectives (see also Brannan, Eslerm, & Anders Strindberg, 2001). Nevertheless, the goals of terrorists might not be as tangible as overthrowing a government--but might merely, for example, correspond to recruitment of support or assistance to family members (e.g., Azam, 2005& Brooks, 2002& Jain & Mukand, 2004).

Second, another complication is that individuals who do believe that terrorism could advance their cause seldom actually engage in terrorist activity (see Schbley, 2000). Although not directly concerned with terrorism, a striking example highlights that individuals often refrain from killing another person, regardless of the rational benefits of this act: During WWII, one estimate is that 85% of infantrymen did not fire their weapons when attacked by enemies, despite the rational benefits of this act (Grossman, 1995).

Third, some instances of terrorism clearly emanate from irrational behavior. Theodore Kaczinski, dubbed the Unabomber, who sent approximately 16 bombs by mail and was responsible for three fatalities and many injuries, seemed to be inflicted with paranoid schizophrenia, as diagnosed by a psychiatrist, appointed by the court (Victoroff, 2005).

Fourth, trivial changes in the assumptions--in the perceived benefits or costs of some act or the perceived intentions of each party--can significantly affect the likelihood that terrorists acts will be committed. Because these parameters cannot be estimated with precision, the predictions of rational choice theory could be very misleading (Wieviorka, 1993).

Fifth, rational choice theory does not seem to accommodate the pronounced effects of impulsive actions, emotional experiences, or flawed cognitions on the behavior of individuals. Profound feelings of revenge, ambition, and trust in leaders can, thus, skew behaviors from the forces of rational processes (Victoroff, 2005). Only these more transient and idiosyncratic forces can explain why few individuals living in similar conditions ever commit these acts.

Finally, according to Post (1998), if terrorism was strategic and rational, such groups should be more likely to disband after they achieve victories. That is, the benefits, and thus incidence, of terrorist acts should diminish. Evidence, however, indicates that terrorists often sabotage their own success, moments before a deal has been reached. Instead, they want to maintain the group--and maintain their sense of purpose and meaning--to fulfil their need to belong as well as their need to engage in risky endeavours. Violence is often incited not to fulfil a strategic goal but to satisfy these other needs in members.


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