Terrorism as Altruism: An Evolutionary Model For Understanding Terrorist Psychology

Rick O'Gorman, Andrew Silke

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Terrorists are often portrayed as the lowest form of combatant, labelled as murderers, criminals and madmen. Yet, this view is counterbalanced by the fact that those who engage in terrorism do so as a small minority at great risk to themselves, and occasionally even intentionally sacrificing themselves for their war or cause. A suicide-bomber is viewed as psychotic; a regular soldier who leads his troops forward to near-certain death can be heroic. Are these two types of combatant really so different? This chapter presents a fresh model for understanding terrorism and terrorists within the context of altruistic behaviour. The chapter draws on evolutionary approaches to understanding altruism in general in human behaviour, outlining the dynamics that allow altruism to function and flourish. Specific insights and models are then applied to terrorism, providing insight into our understanding of the individual psychology of terrorists as well as the contexts in which terrorist groups can emerge. We will not provide a full exposition of evolutionary psychology (EP), as other chapters in this book will address this. In addition, we do not pretend that all terrorism is altruistic (for any community), nor that altruism is the exclusive answer. Far from it, but we do contend that recognizing the altruistic dimension to terrorism is essential to fully understanding terrorism and, ultimately, moderating it. The words ‘terrorist’ and ‘altruist’ rarely appear in close proximity. Instead, terrorists are usually presented as deranged or cowardly. Occasionally, they are seen as freedom fighters, but the very existence of the alternative term makes clear that the terrorist is not virtuous. Terrorism stands as perhaps the most reviled form of combat, threatened only by its close relative, suicide-bombing, in the revulsion stakes. Contributing to the outcast nature of terrorism is the general trend for terrorism engagement to be very much a minority activity, even in communities and conflicts where there is otherwise widespread support for their activities (Alonso et al. 2008). Yet, for scholars of terrorism, the adage that one person’s terrorist is another one’s freedom fighter is a well-grounded recognition of the vacuous assumptions about terrorists’ motivations. Engaging in terrorism is a costly activity, with life and limb on the line, suspension of a normal life – if this is even an option – inevitable and with little obvious gains to be made – the dreams of victorious triumph would seem unlikely to motivate any terrorist and the typical ongoing need to maintain a low profile prevents any immediate gains in community status as a pay-off. Why, then, do those who engage in terrorism do so? If we move past the negative spin, we are free to look at terrorists and recognize that, as for any other human endeavour, various motivations, proclivities and perspectives will have contributed to people engaging in terrorism. Understanding these motivations is essential to turning down, if not off, the terrorism tap. And while much work has already been undertaken to examine the cues and motivations for terrorism engagement (e.g. Borum 2011; McCauley & Moskalenko 2008; Moghadam 2003; Schmid 2013), the exercise for this present chapter is to examine the worth of applying a framework, EP, that is currently prompting a ground-shift in how general psychology interprets and studies human cognition and behaviour. And one of the central topics where evolutionary thinking has contributed important theory and empirical findings is in prosociality. In light of that, it seems worth examining the answer to the question: what can an evolutionary approach contribute to understanding terrorism as altruism?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEvolutionary Psychology and Terrorism
EditorsMax Taylor, Jason Roach, Ken Pease
Place of PublicationLondon
ISBN (Electronic)9781315772424
ISBN (Print)9781138928763, 9781138774582
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • altruism
  • evolution
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • terrorism
  • terrorist psychology
  • psychology of terrorism
  • radicalisation
  • parochial altruism

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