Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brainwashed into terrorism.

   16th December 2014 was a black day for Pakistan. That day we lost almost 145 lives in a brutal attack by Taliban at an army school in the northern area of Pakistan. This attack sparked widespread reactions from people all around the world. Everybody was heartbroken and traumatized by this act of terror against innocent children. Those who survived this massacre later on recalled the horrors of that day. Children were assaulted mercilessly by militants who surged through the campus, gunning down pupils indiscriminately. Some children were forced to watch their teachers and principal being burnt alive in front of them. There were injured, mutilated bodies lying around, all over the place. These children were subjected to the worst kind of torture and it makes one wonder if human beings are actually capable of such brutal actions.
    Many studies have tried to explore what instigates people to behave aggressively and what regulates their aggressive actions. A terrorist is usually a member of a group which shares certain beliefs and feels that they are underprivileged or being denied their rights. They use this as a justification for the horrible acts that they carry out. By dehumanizing the victims and perceiving them as an outgroup responsible for their miseries, terrorists are able to minimize detrimental effects which leads to less self-censure.  Also since most acts of terror are collective actions, the perpetrators are able to feel less responsible for their actions. This reduces self-punishment for their inhumane conducts. It can reduce restraints arising as a result of the fear of social censure.
   In a study participants were allowed to act aggressively under conditions of diffused or personalized responsibility. In each condition the victim/target was either described in humanized, dehumanized or neutral terms. As shown by the figure below, stronger shocks were inflicted on the targets when there was a diffusion of responsibility. Dehumanized performers were treated more aggressively as compared to victims who were more humanized or neutral (Bandura, Underwood & Fromson, 1975).

   A Taliban group later on accepted the responsibility for Peshawar school incident and stated that they carried out this attack to avenge the lives of their family members who were being killed during the many operations carried out against terrorists. Since this was an army school, most of the pupils were children of army officers involved in those operations. So these terrorists were not seeing these children as humans but rather children of the enemy who deserved to be killed. By dehumanizing them and seeing them as an outgroup, they were able to suppress any self-deterring thoughts and justify their brutal actions. Also because this was a collective action, militants felt less accountable for their injurious behaviour.

  For a regular person like you and me, it is almost inconceivable how anyone can ever justify an act of terrorism. On the other hand,  a terrorist is brainwashed and trained to believe that the outgroup members are not to be considered humans with dignifying qualities but rather creatures who deserve the maltreatment they are subjected to.With the reinforcement that they receive from other group members coupled with the negative light in which outgroup members are perceived in, it becomes easier for them to let got of restraints and carry out the worst kinds off actions.


Bandura, A, Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253-269.

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