On this date in 1995, a truck bomb exploded outside the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds. Timothy McVeigh was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. At the time, the bombing was the worst act of terrorism America had ever experienced, but sadly it was just the beginning of a long cycle of violence.
Police and national security experts have spent billions of dollars trying to identify terrorists before they act. Despite these efforts, terrorist activities continue to plague the United States and the international community on an almost daily basis. What, then, can be done to stop terrorism?
In one study, a team of researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom studied the concept of belief formation. The researchers presented an optical illusion, called the autokinetic effect, like in the classic Sherif and Asch conformity studies, to a group of six participants in a darkened room. In this illusion, a stationary point of light “moves” around in different directions for about 15 seconds. During a series of 25 trials, the participants were asked to estimate the farthest distance the light reached from its starting point.
Of the six participants in each trial, three were confederates (i.e., people who were working as “secret agents” for the researchers). Each of the confederates was instructed to extend the distance estimate of a real participant by five centimeters. In addition, the researchers made some participants go through tasks as a group before conducting the experiment, with the idea that these tasks would encourage bonding.
The researchers also asked the real participants a series of probing questions to see whether participants were trying to fit in with the other group members: “Are your guesses becoming more accurate with each trial? Are you trying to fit in with others' judgments? Were you influenced by others’ judgments?” The overall goal of the study was to determine how the decisions, attitudes, and beliefs of a person influence the opinions of other members in a group.
So, did group “belongingness” cause the real participants to change their estimates to match those of the confederates? Yes—in almost every trial! In a nutshell, the authors found that participants who felt they fit in with the group, compared to those who felt they didn’t fit in, were more likely to conform to the groups’ estimate of how far the light had traveled. In other words, people who felt less embedded in their group gave responses that were very different from the rest of the responses.
Now, what do guesses about a traveling light have to do with combating terrorism? The study showed that we can predict whether people will conform to or oppose their social group based on whether they feel they fit in with that group.
I call this “The College Greek Life Effect” because, even though I wasn’t in a fraternity in college, I had a lot of friends in them and noticed an interesting pattern. Greek students who felt aligned with the goals of their fraternity or sorority brothers and sisters enthusiastically participated in Greek events. These were the students who could be seen doing upside-down kegstands, wearing their nicest dress to a sorority formal dinner, or rocking out to the house band at a frat party. On the flipside, there were other members of a fraternity or sorority who used to feel aligned with Greek Life, but no longer felt they fit in with the rest of their house. They might have been long-time members of the house who weren’t ready to drop out of being in the Greek circle, but it was clear they were trying to separate themselves by telling their non-Greek friends, “I’m not like other people in houses.”
The College Greek Life Effect exists much more broadly in society — we can see it based on how citizens respond to government policies and popular culture. People who feel like they fit in with and generally agree with their government’s policies are happy conforming to it. They feel comfortable relying on elected representatives and peers to help them make good decisions. However, when people feel isolated from general society or stop agreeing with policies, then they can, in the worst-case scenario, join gangs, cults, or other extremist groups to express their difference of opinion. Law enforcement personnel are trained to spot this sort of group dynamic, but parents, religious leaders, and teachers are often the first to see these “oppositional” relationships form — so it’s important to be aware of (and say something about!) unusual group behavior. The purpose of speaking out is not to force everyone to conform to each other — it’s good to live in a society with differing opinions and actions — but to bring attention to the fact that people who are acting dramatically different from the rest of society might feel isolated. In turn, this may be a sign that an individual is in need of help. More broadly, if people are hardwired to fit in with others, then parents and other community leaders need to promote diversity and positive group experiences. This is especially important in a society like the United States that has citizens from such a wide range of backgrounds. Exposing a would-be terrorist to other ways of thinking won’t necessarily change their mind, but helping him or her feel more comfortable in society may make that person less likely to want to destroy society.
Terrorism is a complex issue, so I don’t want to imply that the prescription above is the solution or to oversimplify how we think about acts of terrorism. Rather, the major take-home I want to offer is that it’s common to characterize terrorists as psychotic or sadistic, but the study above — and many others like it — suggests that they are often ordinary people driven by group dynamics. No matter how heated the discussion may get, I think it’s important to remember this fact.