Modern day terrorism does not seem too foreign of a concept to me. I was raised about 40 minutes outside of Los Angeles. I have watched gangs initiate members by "jumping" them in while playing at the neighborhood park, I remember the race riots at the local high school, but most of all I remember feeling that people must be desperate for some form of acceptance in life if they were willing to endure so much physical pain.
Fast forward a little bit and here we are in 2015. Gangs still exist, but now we are having a huge problem with terrorism. I do not understand how gangs were not considered "terrorists," but that is besides the point. Modern day society has a problem, and it is a big ugly one at that. The IS (Islamic State) is recruiting everyday "ordinary" people from all over the world to join their group. "How is this happening," You might ask? Recent statistics show that about one-third of IS fighters are from Europe, the UK, or the US. Perhaps we should dissect the components of what it takes for an everyday, ordinary citizen to all of a sudden join a violent group.
Let us start by reminding people that psychology does not make excuses for behaviors or actions of ourselves/others; psychology merely seeks to better understand why we behave the way we do. In order to better understand people as individuals, you cannot discount the affects of the individual's personality, given dispositional characteristics, societal climate, given situations, and systemic controls.
The Individual's Personality
The choice to join a group such as a gang, IS, etc, starts with the individual. There are many risk factors involved in a person's chances in joining a violent group. An actual risk factor assessment tool called the HCR-20 has been created to assess an individual's risk for violence. Some of the factors that can influence a person to join a violent group are presented in the table below.
Furthermore, research shows that youth will frequently set aside their moral standards if it means that they will be accepted by a chosen group (Emler & Reicher, 1995). Youth are a vulnerable population because they are not only still working towards identity formation, but their brains are not fully developed until they are in their mid-twenties (Geid, 1999). That being said, there are many adults who might also be struggling for a sense of identity which could lead them to be tempted to join a group such as a gang or IS because it would give them direction and somewhere to "belong."
A Person's Given Situation
We have talked about personality factors as well as some historical events above, but a person's given situation can highly influence their decision making skills. Decision making in itself is a very complex process which is tied to the person's experiential background, mood, and emotional volatility (Kyspin-Exner, et al, 2010). Many people who have survived traumatic events in their lives carry the scars, whether they are physical scars, mental, or both. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can make the decision making process a nightmare for someone who suffers from the symptoms. Flashbacks (reliving the trauma), night terrors, feeling emotionally numb, feeling guilty/depressed/anxious, being easily startled, feeling "on edge", sleeping difficulties, and angry outbursts are common symptoms of PTSD.
Many times, decisions are made impulsively. People who are working through PTSD symptoms can improve their decision making skills by waiting to make decisions until they are calm and feel as though they are in a safe place. PTSD is just one of the multiple mental health problems that can impair judgement and overall decision making capabilities. If you are experiencing the "fog" of a mental health issue (depression, anxiety, mood disorder, psychosis, etc), it is best to seek help before making any life changing decisions.
How Societal Climate Influences People
Sometimes people can be living their lives fairly happy and secure, but then IT happens. IT is the unforeseen layoff of a job, a serious medical condition, or the death of a loved one. All of these circumstances are hard on us and can definitely take its toll; mentally, physically, and spiritually. Other instances can involve generational differences to where jobs are scarce, education is through the roof, or you find yourself in the middle of a war zone. It is hard to think about finding your purpose in life when you are having to think about food, shelter, and safety.
Most of these societal obstacles are out of the individual's control, and at that point it basically comes down to emotional fortitude and resiliency. If a person lacks the coping skills to be able to successfully adapt and maintain their sense of security, something is inevitably going to break inside of them. At this point, they either seek support to gain these skills or they become further internalized and withdrawn. This can lead to poor decision making and violence either against self or others.
What About CHOICE?
According to Dr. Philip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the bestselling book, The Lucifer Effect, "We can either be kind or cruel, caring or indifferent, creative or destructive, villains or heroes." That being said, it all comes down to choice. We are ALL capable of anything, as we talked about before, it just comes down to your personality, life experiences, societal climate, and in the very end...your choice. How would you choose to act in a certain uncomfortable and stressful situation? Zimbardo believes that we have 3 choices;
1.) To become hostile, aggressive, and violent
2.) To act in a heroic way by standing against the evil, whether it is inequality, prejudice, racism, maltreatment, etc, OR
3.) As most people would do, choose to do nothing at all and be a bystander.
Many bystanders argue that, "You shouldn't stick your nose where it doesn't belong," or to "Mind your own business," but much like Dr. Zimbardo, my stance is that HUMANITY is our business and we cannot sit on the sidelines blindly looking away as people's lives are destroyed.
Emler, N., & Reicher, S. (1995). Adolescence and delinquency. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Giedd, J. N., J. Blumenthal, et al. (1999). "Brain development during childhood and
adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study." Nature Neuroscience 2(10): 861-863.
Kyspin-Exner, I., Lueger-Schuster, B., Moser, E., Robinson, S. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Decision-Making - Neural Correlates and Possible Therapeutic Effects. Downloaded 6/1/10 from http://brl.psy.univie.ac.at/research/decisions/
Webster, C., Douglas, K., Eaves, D., & Hart, S. (1997). HCR-20 Assessing Risk for Violence: Version II. Burnaby, British Columbia: Mental Health, Law & Policy Institute, Simon Frazier University.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, New York: Random House.