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On Rationality Of Suicide Bombing
The success of suicide bombing as a tactic employed by a terrorist organisation
can be attributed to creating an ostracised profile of the bomber by society
that effectively contradicts all our rational predispositions. Since we
find it difficult to comprehend the irrational, we create false terrorist
identities which then affect our own behaviour, state politics and market
operations. This process however is inefficient since it essentially targets
the wrong group. Instead of effective counter-terrorist actions, more
groups become involved and aggravated creating further tensions in the
international environment. This paper will argue that by eliminating discrepancies
and false notions of terrorists, the society can benefit by developing
an understanding of their motivations. This however will not be done through
presentation of extensive findings on terrorist profiles, but instead
through an examination of our own behaviours and motivations. It may turn
out that our own perception of ourselves as rational, self-interested
utility-maximisers as proscribed by Classical economics, is not so close
To begin, it is important to consider the stereotypical profile of a suicide
bomber as presented to us through the media and political channels. From
a twenty-first century Western perspective, justifying death for a political
or religious cause is simply absurd. Our society had passed the period
of intense political association; therefore it looks for alternative motivations
to fit the ‘irrational’ bomber stereotype. Naturally, themes such as youth
impulsivity, crime and suicide came up and were significantly integrated
into our understanding. Further each theme was explored and evidence such
as a “strong link between erratic or harsh discipline, lack of adequate
supervision, rejection by mother…” (10, p. 334); “increased inequality
generates frustration among lower class youth” (10, p. 336), contributed
to societal perceptions. However as more research was conducted in terrorism
itself, it was concluded that there was no necessary connection between
crime and terrorism (1, p. 121), while seeing teens as “pathological risk-takers
who are not responsive to economic incentives” was strongly rejected by
empirical evidence (15, p. 23). This means that there is a need to concentrate
on terrorist attacks as individual context-specific occurrences by the
means of expanding our own constraints of rationality.
This paper will first look at strictly economic elements of behaviour
by integrating it with more recent developments of traditional concepts
such as rationality, preferences and time discounting. Afterwards, delving
into concepts beyond economics, emotions, identity and motivations will
be considered. The concluding part will concentrate on typical socio-economic
characteristics associated with terrorism. At all times the key focus
will be on drawing links between generally-accepted “normal” behaviour
and characteristics with those of a suicide bomber.
We view our decisions, at least important decisions, such as whether or
not to go to college, what to study, what career to pursue, who to marry,
as a series of well-thought out analysis of benefits and costs. We also
see ourselves as the main contributors to such decisions, for the major
parts isolated from the influences of outside parties. Obvious exceptions
here would be living subsistence and financial constraints provided by
our parents or guardians at a young age. We see ourselves as utility maximisers
most of the time, whereby we attempt to attain the biggest benefits from
life subject to constraints. Classical economics sees us as rational self-interested
agents, an idea that steers most of the libertarian thinking in public
policy and economics, effectively entrusting the structures in place to
self-regulate with the help of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. In his article
Elster attributes rationality to anyone who acts through the best means
of realising own desires, which in turn have been optimally acquired within
an optimal information pool with optimal resources (12, p. 1391). Recent
studies, however demonstrate that such optimality is not always possible
and almost impossible to achieve and people’s daily decision-making is
often simplified and subject to numerous constraints. This sees the assumption
of rationality challenged on several levels.
Preferences are one of the key characteristics of an economic agent’s
utility- maximisation process. Classical economics assumes that they remain
stable throughout an individual’s life, an assumption that has been subjected
to numerous attacks recently. In their article Beshears, Choi, Laibson
and Madrian widen the gap between normative and revealed preferences suggesting
that our economic behaviour is not as autonomous and self-regulated as
we think. Particular disparities include the notion of passive choice
and the extent of our exposure to defaults (5, p. 4). It is inefficient
for individuals to process all information out there before making a decision,
thus most of our daily actions are performed almost automatically. As
a result optimality is sacrificed but time is considerable preserved.
Default behaviour is often a product of certain norms established within
a family or a society, therefore in his decision to join a terrorist organisation,
the potential bomber, may simply be following the family tradition or
affiliation, without deeply considering the circumstances. Another strong
implication for preferences is limited personal experience and the consequential
inability to assess the situation adequately (5, p. 7). Learning from
others is not always effective and we often prefer to judge for ourselves
before making any resolute commitments. However this is often done blindly.
Thus, for example, very few people defer from ever trying alcohol based
on family or friend experiences. Similarly entering a terrorist organisation
is often done without full understanding of its workings. Motivations
certainly play a part but to a large extent the secrecy makes it impossible
to track one’s ‘career path’. This is reinforced by another element; third-party
marketing that enables the organisation to only display its best characteristics,
such as a medium for fulfilling one’s ideological goals (5, p. 7). Here
the choices are consciously manufactured much like in advertising and
electoral campaigns that we witness in our lives. The stability of preferences
is further compromised by temporal considerations, often we find it difficult
to project our future preferences as will be discussed below.
The concept of intertemporal choice implies “decisions involving tradeoffs
among costs and benefits occurring at different points in time.” (9, p.
2) The discounted utility model that was introduced by Samuelson, whereby
the rate at which we discount the future is assumed to be constant, never
found any significant support in empirical findings (9, p. 3&56).
Instead, the concept of hyperbolic discounting as a more realistic evaluation
method of time discounting should be used (9, p. 14). It proposes that
economic agents behave in time-inconsistent manner, whereby they value
present rewards over future rewards. This may lead them to deviate from
utility maximisation. It has been proven as well that the time temporal
specification of when the choice is made is also extremely important.
Therefore we are able to constrain ourselves to attain a bigger satisfaction
later. This can be evidenced in dieting, environmental behaviour and study
techniques (9, p. 15). A terrorist is often promised significant rewards
in his future life that appeals to his preferences and more susceptible
visceral factors, such as posthumous fame and an abundant supply of women
in his future life. Terrorist organisations manipulate this anticipatory
utility thus “by increasing attractiveness of certain goods or activities,
they can give rise to behaviours that look extremely impatient or even
impulsive” (9, p. 31). However here, the group must also be conscious
of uncertainly and risk-taking that can dramatically affect the recruits’
discount rate, therefore future promises need to be supported by present
rewards as well (9, p. 42). Here financial support to family and certain
status progression associated with engagement in a terrorist group become
The second section will examine some factors traditionally associated
with psychological influences on behaviour rather than pure economical.
Emotion is the first such factor that most people underestimate when evaluating
their decision-making instead attributing it to deliberate thought-out
“Economics deters from studying emotions because people do not seem to
manage them rationally.” (12, p. 1387)
Indeed due to the large spectrum of emotions, it would be almost impossible
to establish direct consequences of each; however it is undeniable that
they influence our behaviour significantly, often in a way that contradicts
our self-interest (4, p. 427-428). Many of life’s important decision are
said to be made under visceral factors (4, p. 429). This is a crucial
factor in the performance of a suicidal attack. The organisers must ensure
that if in their opinion the bomber’s cognitive foundations are unreliable,
the effect of visceral factors is crucial. Thus everything will be aimed
to arousing, angering and inspiring all sorts of negative retaliatory
ideas prior to the act to ensure completion (4, p. 430). Such actions
rely on the assumptions that altruistic motivations fail the bomber in
the last minute and a safety valve in the form of promised rewards will
kick in, as intense visceral factors tend to narrow one’s focus inwardly,
to undermine altruism and make the person selfish (3, p. 275), while proximate
“desirability increases automatically when rewards become imminently available”
(3, p. 279). A very effective tool for generation an emotional response
from humans is vividness. Loewenstein argues that well-publicised terrorist
attacks diminished travel abroad by Americans due to “immediate emotions
arising from future events...inevitably linked to some mental image or
representation of those events” (3, p. 280). It is believed that the human
brain is incapable of storing pain but can easily recreate visual, verbal
and semantic information (3, p. 284). This is of course invaluable to
anyone who wishes to manipulate behaviour. A terrorist group may wish
to conduct training using a series of powerful images portraying the suffering
of innocent people and how the perpetrators deserve retaliation. At the
same time in our context we see politicians framing events in such a way
as to present a point of view that allows the most emotion-evoking response
from the audience. When we see reports of terrorist suicide attacks on
the television, we are often presented with a vivid description of casualties
and other particulars, immediately followed by various suggestions of
who may have been responsible. Thus our emotional response becomes immediately
associated with specified organisations. The connection has not been made
by us and more than likely only a small percentage will bother to question
its true nature.
The second aspect that influences our behaviour is identity properties.
Akerlof and Kranton argue that identity is a function of social categories
that we are placed in (2, p. 720). These include gender, class, income
levels, religion, nationality etc and they each impose certain constraints
on our behaviour. As humans we become accustomed to each group and tend
to react aggressively to outsiders as they compromise our special status.
They give an example of women employed in a traditionally male workplace.
As the woman reaches the same level of competence as her male colleagues,
she becomes victimised and repressed and the men see it as an attack on
masculinity (2, p. 723). Further, apparently it is within the notion of
masculinity to retaliate, the implications of which are evident in terrorism
in general. Identity is crucial to human beings, making its loss or disassociation
particularly painful. It is a particular problem in the modern society
that praises globalisation, yet suffers from it at the same time. Economic
migration has led to rejection and alienation of millions of people who
were forced to move for economic reasons and lost ties with their home
identities. Faced with oppressive nationalistic policies that seem to
be rising in response to globalisation, many turn to ways in which they
can regain that sense of identity and help the people they left behind.
This is one of the reasons second-generation migrants turn to violent
means of achieving their objectives.
“on one side lies employment and self-hatred, on the other, the equally
dubious honor of unemployment with integrity” (2, p. 739)
The consideration of socio-economic elements will begin with education.
It is often assumed that suicide bombers and terrorists in general will
have none or very minimal level of educational attainment. This is a precedent
for the irrationality which is attributed to the act. However research
has demonstrated stark contradictions to this notion. Nassra Hassan’s
(2001) informal observations about Palestinian suicide bombers:
“None of them were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded or depressed.
Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs.
More than half of them were refugees from what is now Israel. Two were
the sons of millionaires.” (1, p. 135-136)
Thus again we see a significant departure from the expected rationale.
“…well-educated individuals may participate disproportionately in terrorist
groups if they think that they will assume leadership positions if they
succeed; or if they identify more strongly with the goals of the terrorist
organization than less educated individuals; or if they live in a society
where the relative pay advantage of well-educated individuals is greater
for participation in terrorist organizations than in the legal sector.”(1,
Once we strip the lack of education from the profile, we are forced to
view the actions of the bomber to be in his best interests. Understandably
this is not something people can readily adjust to. As previously mentioned,
considerations of ideology are difficult to comprehend for a Westerner,
whose political ‘struggle’ is often limited to a last-minute half-hearted
vote at the local primary school.
Similarly, welfare conditions associated with terrorism, specifically
poverty, have been discredited as having any correlation or causation
effects (1, p. 135). This connection is made as economic grievances are
expected to be the biggest motivators in joining a terrorist group. The
stereotypical terrorist will join as an act of desperation in an attempt
to improve the financial situation of his family. The lack of any empirical
data supporting this claim and evidence from Nassra Hassan quoted above
demonstrates yet again how Western value and ideals prevent us from understanding
other cultures, therefore forcing us to make assumptions based on our
The impact of the group is arguably one of the most powerful influences
in a terrorist organisation. A shared ideology supported by a brotherly
bond is constantly reinforced in order to create a collective identity
that precedes individualism. The potential bomber establishes a circle
of colleagues and friends, all of whom go through the same training process
and develop ties such as loyalty and trust. Making individual contributions
publicly observable also raises contributions to public good substantially
(14, p. 22), therefore group members add to the collective identity, sometimes
through elements of competition and favouritism. These in turn progress
into social obligations, whereby failing to go through with the performance
would mean betraying the group’s ideology and members. We can identify
numerous parallels in our own environment. Sacerdote compiled a study
of peer effects in a college dorm where roommates developed bonds strong
enough that later influenced their selection of fraternities/sororities
(11, p. 681). Such tendencies make it vital for the terrorist group leaders
to limit outside influences on the group, therefore creating a homogenous
brotherhood of like-minded individuals. At the same time no social structure
can function without obedience, making authority a central element in
the functioning of the group. Not only does it guide the overall aims
and beliefs of the organisation, it controls recruitment and the day-to-day
duties associated with maintaining control of the members. As Milgram’s
experiment established:” individual who is commanded by a legitimate authority
ordinarily obeys” (13, p. 371). The power of the group is especially interesting
in the workings of a firm; we see that familiar structures sometimes have
very particular motivations in mind:
“If it is true that some people are more self-interested than others then
choosing the “right” people is one way of affecting the preferences of
a firm’s workforce. For this reason employers have a strong interest in
recruiting employees who have favourable preferences and whose preferences
can be affected in favourable ways. There is circumstantial evidence for
this because the testing and screening of employees is often as much about
the employee’s willingness to become a loyal firm member as it is about
the employee’s technical abilities.” (14, p. 8)
The concept of reciprocity is another binding factor to the firm. “There
is a close relation between the notion of reciprocity and the idea that
employers often deliberately attempt to change the preferences of their
employees in ways that help to achieve the firm’s goals, prefer loyal
employees who take goals of organization into account.” (14, p.7) This
is very representative of a terrorist group as well. While admission into
the group requires a lot of personal motivation and commitment, it will
not be sufficient to rely on individual contribution. The leaders have
to consistently work on solidifying those loyalties and consequently advancing
the group’s cause.
This paper outlined the traditional framework associated with the profile
of a terrorist suicide bomber. The tools at our disposal were the classical
characteristics of a utility-maximising agent. With the help of recent
discoveries in the field of behavioural economics, some of the stereotypical
perceptions were challenged in an attempt to gain some understanding of
the processes by which a terrorist decides to join a group and motivate
himself to accomplish his goals. The purpose of this approach was to bring
the terrorist identity into the boundaries of rationality and thus diminish
the dramatic impact suicide bombing has on society. Since one of the main
aims of terrorism is to make a statement to the world, purely to attract
attention and not kill civilians, perhaps by engaging with this subject
we can decrease its effectiveness, which would save lives and maybe eventually
encourage them to look for more peaceful alternative to promote their
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Is There a Causal Connection?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol.
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The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000, CXV(3), pp. 715-53.
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