Hypotheses of Terrorism
Books on Sociology of Terrorism,
Olson hypothesis, suggests that
participants in revolutionary violence predicate their behavior on a rational cost-benefit
calculus and the conclusion that violence is the best available course of action given the
The frustration-aggression hypothesis is based mostly on the relative-deprivation
hypothesis, as proposed by Ted Robert Gurr, an expert on violent behaviors and movements,
and reformulated by J.C. Davies (1973) to include a gap between rising expectations and
need satisfaction. Another proponent of this hypothesis, Joseph Margolin, argues that
"much terrorist behavior is a response to the frustration of various political,
economic, and personal needs or objectives."
According to Professor Franco Ferracuti, a better approach than these and other
hypotheses, including the Marxist theory, would be a subcultural theory, which takes into
account that terrorists live in their own subculture, with
their own values.
Political scientist Paul Wilkinson faults the
frustration-aggression hypothesis for having "very little to say about the social psychology of prejudice
and hatred..." and fanaticisms that "play a major role in encouraging extreme
violence." He believes that "Political terrorism cannot be understood outside
the context of the development of terroristic, or potentially terroristic, ideologies,
beliefs and life-styles.
Negative Identity Hypothesis
Using Erikson's theory of identity formation, particularly his concept of negative
identity, the late political psychologist Jeanne N. Knutson (1981) suggests that the
political terrorist consciously assumes a negative identity. One of her examples is a
Croatian terrorist who, as a member of an oppressed ethnic minority, was disappointed by
the failure of his aspiration to attain a university education, and as a result assumed a
negative identity by becoming a terrorist. Negative identity involves a vindictive
rejection of the role regarded as desirable and proper by an individual's family and
community. In Knutson's view, terrorists engage in terrorism as a result of feelings of
rage and helplessness over the lack of alternatives. Her political science-oriented
viewpoint seems to coincide with the frustration-aggression hypothesis.
Narcissistic Rage Hypothesis
The advocates of the narcissism-aggression hypothesis include
psychologists Jerrold M. Post, John W. Crayton, and Richard M. Pearlstein. Taking
the-terrorists-as-mentally-ill approach, this hypothesis concerns the early development of
the terrorist. Basically, if primary narcissism in the form of the "grandiose
self" is not neutralized by reality testing, the grandiose self produces individuals
who are sociopathic, arrogant, and lacking in regard for others. Similarly, if the
psychological form of the "idealized parental ego" is not neutralized by reality
testing, it can produce a condition of helpless defeatism, and narcissistic defeat can
lead to reactions of rage and a wish to destroy the source of narcissistic injury.
"As a specific manifestation of narcissistic rage, terrorism occurs in the context of
narcissistic injury," writes Crayton (1983:37-8). For Crayton, terrorism is an
attempt to acquire or maintain power or control by intimidation. He suggests that the
"meaningful high ideals" of the political terrorist group "protect the
group members from experiencing shame."
In Post's view, a particularly striking personality trait of people who are drawn to
terrorism "is the reliance placed on the psychological mechanisms of
"externalization" and 'splitting'." These are psychological mechanisms, he
explains, that are found in "individuals with narcissistic and borderline personality
disturbances." "Splitting," he explains, is a mechanism characteristic of
people whose personality development is shaped by a particular type of psychological
damage (narcissistic injury) during childhood. Those individuals with a damaged
self-concept have failed to integrate the good and bad parts of the self, which are
instead split into the "me" and the "not me." These individuals, who
have included Hitler, need an outside enemy to blame for their own inadequacies and
weaknesses. The data examined by Post, including a 1982 West German study, indicate that
many terrorists have not been successful in their personal, educational, and vocational
lives. They are drawn to terrorist groups, which have an us-versus-them outlook.
This hypothesis, however, appears to be contradicted by the increasing number of
terrorists who are well-educated professionals, such as chemists, engineers, and
The psychology of the self is clearly very important in understanding and dealing with
terrorist behavior, as in incidents of hostage-barricade terrorism. Crayton points out
that humiliating the terrorists in such situations by withholding food, for example, would
be counterproductive because "the very basis for their activity stems from their
sense of low self-esteem and humiliation."
Using a Freudian analysis of the self and the narcissistic personality, Pearlstein (1991)
eruditely applies the psychological concept of narcissism to terrorists. He observes that
the political terrorist circumvents the psychopolitical liabilities of accepting himself
or herself as a terrorist with a negative identity through a process of rhetorical
self-justification that is reinforced by the group's group-think. His hypothesis, however,
seems too speculative a construct to be used to analyze terrorist motivation independently
of numerous other factors. For example, politically motivated hijackers have rarely acted
for self-centered reasons, but rather in the name of the political goals of their groups.
It also seems questionable that terrorist suicide-bombers, who deliberately sacrificed
themselves in the act, had a narcissistic personality.