Disarmament Insight


Friday, 27 July 2007

Does Terrorism Work?

Over the last few months, I’ve been researching cognitive biases and how they influence our decision-making. I looked at the confirmation bias, which is the human tendency to seek out and process information that confirms our preexisting beliefs. I also examined the self-serving attributional bias; when we blame unfavorable outcomes on external causes but take credit for positive ones. A recent article I read talked about a different bias: correspondent inference theory.

Correspondent inference theory is the human tendency “to infer the motives – and also the disposition – of someone who performs an action based on the effects of his actions, and not on external or situational factors.” Paying attention to what those around you are doing makes “evolutionary sense” – most of the time, it pays to infer as quickly as possible the intentions of those around you.

But it doesn’t work all the time in building an accurate picture of what’s going on.

A recent paper, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work” by Max Abrahms, draws attention to how responses to terrorism are influenced by correspondent inference theory. First, let’s look at a lighthearted example to shed light on this.

In the 1985 movie comedy The Man with One Red Shoe (which, by the way, is a remake of the French film The Tall Blonde Man with One Black Shoe), the CIA believes that a random civilian (Tom Hanks) is a spy so they set about investigating his life to prove it.

In one scene, CIA operatives tear Hanks’ flat apart to try and find anything that would establish he is a spy, like disconnecting pipes in the bathroom to see if anything is hidden inside. As they rush to piece everything back together, they inadvertently connect the toilet pipe to the sink. When Hanks returns home, he repeatedly flushes the toilet trying to figure out why water comes out the sink spout. CIA officers, listening to this via the bugs they’ve planted, infer that he’s flushing evidence down the toilet. By misinterpreting what Hanks is doing, the CIA needlessly send an officer into the sewer to find this “evidence”.

More seriously, Abrahms’ paper draws attention to the fact that it is sometimes assumed that the goal of terrorist activities is to kill innocent people and so instill fear or economic instability in a population. These assertions, according to Abrahms’ analysis of the policy objectives of 28 terrorist groups, aren’t necessarily correct.

Many terrorist groups have avowed strategic goals. For example, Abrahms notes that al-Qaeda’s goals have been consistent (like ending American support of Israel and eliminating U.S. interference in Saudi Arabia). These goals, however, haven’t been achieved. In fact, Abrahms claimed overall that, out of the 42 policy objectives for these 28 groups, only 7 percent were achieved. The rest of the policy objectives were not achieved.

What was the deciding factor between objectives that were achieved and those that failed? Abrahms’ data revealed that the target of the terrorist attacks was important. Groups that attacked military and diplomatic targets more than civilians were more effective in achieving their ends. Out of the 19 groups that primarily targeted civilians, there were 28 policy objectives between them. Twenty-five of these objectives were not achieved, and only limited progress was made toward achieving three.

Abrahms’ explanation for this effect rests on correspondent inference theory. High numbers of civilian casualties from terrorism lead citizens and governments alike to infer that the aim of terrorist groups is to kill innocent civilians and disrupt their way of life. This inferred “maximalist” agenda makes them more steadfast in their resolve not to negotiate with terrorists. As a result, the stated goals of the terrorist groups tend to go unmet.

Terrorism against civilians, it seems, isn’t a very effective tactic and, if Abrahms is correct, is even counter-productive if its aim is to compel governments to change their policies to meet the terrorists’ goals. Unfortunately, such terrorism goes on nonetheless.

Ashley Thornton


Wired Magazine, “The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail”. 12 July 2007: http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/

Max Abrahms, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006).

Photo by "shoothead" retrieved from Flickr.com.