The psychology of talking about Muslims and terrorism

The psychology of discussing terrorism

Consider this simple situational example:

A boy notices his mother shut the door, and the room becomes less noisy; the correspondent inference is that she wanted quiet.

Edward Jones, a social psychologist of the 1960s and 1970s, called that “attribute-effect linkage.” What does that mean? The objectives of the actor — in this case, ‘wanting quiet’ — are encoded within the observable outcome of behavior — in this case, shutting the door.

This whole thing is called “correspondent inference theory,” and it’s a huge deal if you really think about: our brain interacts with hundreds of people and situations per day. Some are familiar, but some aren’t. It has to put everything in context and attempt to infer motives or behaviors from limited, potentially superficial, interactions.

This only gets exacerbated with social media, Muslim, ISIS, terrorism, etc.-type discussions.

As Max Abrahms of Northeastern notes in Harvard Business Review:

This is why soccer coaches, cab drivers, and everyone else in the world think they know what the terrorists want. People infer the motives of terrorists directly from the observable consequences of their violent behavior – not from studying the groups more scientifically.

The fraught part of that is the end — “studying the groups more scientifically” — because you could argue that’s not the job of 98 percent of the planet. Most people want to put their opinions and ideas into the ether; that’s the power, but also the significant drawback, of an idea like social media. A great or powerful concept could be put on Facebook, right? And the problem is — it might be totally wrong. But people are still going to believe it and run with it.

For a while, the whole thing with “IF YOU CANCEL THAT YOUTH SOCCER GAME, THE TERRORISTS WILL WIN!” was a bullshit middle-class white-person joke. It’s the same way people add “hashtag” to everything when talking and think it’s funny. (P.S. It’s not funny.)

But here’s your psychological theory: just like Kruger-Dunning explains why morons think they’re smart, correspondent inference theory explains why everyone seems to think they know the motivations of ISIS or Muslims or terrorists or however you want to (inaccurately) group those things together, when in fact some of the highest-level people in American government and military service don’t completely understand the motivations of ISIS.


Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I’d say they don’t understand it because they don’t want to understand it. ISIS has been fairly open about their motivations. They want the US and The West in general to stop fucking around in their part of the world, and they very much want to top seeing so many of their family members and loved ones get maimed and killed by seemingly indiscriminate bombing, and terrorized by arbitrary ‘regime change’ operations that lead to despotism.

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