Acts of terrorism are becoming increasingly common in today's society. From the frequent suicide bombings in Israel, the recent violence in the Russian village of Beslan, to the attacks on the world trade centers on September the eleventh of 2001 that so violently shook the world; terrorism is rarely far from our minds. Terrorist groups have a variety of aims, acts of revenge, politics, but by far the most common, and arguably most disturbing reason for these actions is religion.
It is exceptionally important that we can learn to understand the forces that drive people to commit such wanton acts of destruction, and social psychology can help us to do that.
Social psychology is a diverse field of study, it is "the scientific field that seeks to understand the nature and causes of individual behavior in social situations" (Social Psychology, Baron and Byrne). In social psychology we study the social factors which influence the individual to carry out certain actions, thus it is invaluable in studying terrorism.
Social psychologists study both the immediate social context (the influence of whatever group we are in the immediate company of) and the wider social context (the effects of family, culture etc) both of which have great effect on personality, belief and behavior.
An example of the effect of the immediate social context are the experiments carried out by Stanley Milgram. Milgram carried out a series of social psychology experiments into proximity and willingness of humans to cause pain to others using an electrocution device. The test also involved however the use of an authority figure to issue orders to carry out the electric shock. Milgram put volunteers in pairs and assigned one the role of teacher and the other of learner (the learners all being actors). The learners were strapped into chairs with electrodes attached to them. The teachers were then taken to another room with a scientist, where they could hear but not see the learners. The learners were asked a series of questions and if a wrong answer was given the teacher was asked to give an electric shock, of increasing power with each incorrect answer, as punishment. While many of the participants seemed unhappy with carrying out this task none of them stopped, especially after the scientist present said that it was their duty to continue this action, and in fact many increased the voltage to levels none of the experimenters predicted.
This experiment was repeated with the learners in view, and while the teachers were less willing they still continued the punishment.
This is demonstrative of the power of persuasion by authority figures.
Milgrams research into the obedience of authority shows how simple it is to influence someone's thoughts and actions, to the point where they are willing to commit great harm against other humans. All that is required is a certain amount of charisma and a commanding manner. This experiment was a clear example...