Exploring the Psychology of Terror Threat Construction

By Andre Lopes Massa

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11, there has been a strong group dynamic regarding the construction of the friend/enemy binary regarding the discourse that surrounds the construction of a terrorist enemy. A rhetoric of American exceptionalism has often been one of the central components of forming this binary as a strong feeling of nationalism has often been at the heart of forming biased assumptions about other relevant groups that project enemy images onto them in a need to protect our own conception of ourselves. This paper will seek to apply the theories of political psychology regarding the formation of in-groups and out-groups and how these cognitive processes can explain the dynamic that exists between American excpetionalism and the construction of terrorism as an existential threat. I will also seek to examine the role that affect plays in evoking feelings of anger that contribute to the solidifying of the group dynamics that lead to the construction of terrorism as an enemy “other” who must be exterminated for the preservation of American culture. The argument here is not that terrorism is a fantasy and does not exist, but rather that there are certain biases and psychological factors that impact what we deem as “terrorism” and how we construct that label in the first place that may impact our decision-making apparatus with how to handle the issues at hand.

In order to understand the formation of the in-group, out-group dynamics, Martha Cottam provides the best foundation to understand how social groups form in the first place. For Cottam, one of the main elements of cognition involves the formation of categories, “that aid them in their need to process information efficiently. There is no set recipe by which categories are formed. Categories, the attributes or characteristics associated with them and the belief formed through experience. (Cottam, Introduction to Political Psychology, pg. 43). It is inevitable that the human mind will form categories and binaries to aid in the processing information and there is only so much information the human mind can be willing to process. Thus, when it comes to understanding other groups and cultures we often form assumptions about those groups and cultures as a cognitive shortcut in order to make the creation of categories easier. Cottam believes that these cognitive shortcuts are instrumental in the formation stereotypes when she writes, “We categorize people into racial groups, ethnic groups, nationality groups, religious groups, that is, and we organize the social world in terms of social categories. We all make assumptions about other people, ourselves, and the situation we are in.” (Cottam, Introduction to Political Psychology, pg. 44). Here we have one theory for explaining how terrorism can be constructed on the basis of ethnicity. Terrorism, as a stereotype, is often associated with those that reside in the Middle East because one of the cognitive shortcuts that Americans will take in constructing that binary is that the Middle East has always been perceived to be violent, unstable, and a breeding ground for extremists. Thus, the cognitive basis for the formation of the category of the “terrorist” has to do with the perceived stability of one ethic group. Because we often associate the Arab world with instability due to history, we often see such regions as a “breeding ground” for terrorism and begin to form stereotypes regarding those groups because one’s experiences of the world will provide the foundation for the cognitive shortcut that is, “If the Middle East is unstable, then terrorism is more likely to come from there. Therefore, every Arab person is a terrorist in some capacity.” Stereotypes regarding religious extremism come into play when that perceived notion of instability makes us more likely to think that religious extremism arises because it fills some kind of need for a higher power when a stable government doesn’t exist. Because we, as Americans, have been indoctrinated to firmly believe that our system of government is one of the best, if not the best in the world, the notion of extremism is unfathomable to imagine as we already have a higher power that we can look up to for guidance. Thus, we are more likely to associate an American as being someone, who is educated, moderate and reasonable and someone in the Middle East as being more likely to be fanatical, extremist, irrational and thus fitting our preconceived attributes for how we categorize one as a terrorist.

One of the particular stereotypes regarding the Middle East and how those stereotypes aid in the construction of the terrorist regard the notion of Orientalism and how certain views of the West can play a role in that construction. In his 1979 book, Orientalism, Edward Said traced the cultural depictions of the Middle East since the 18th century that would play, “integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies, and colonial styles” (Said, Orientalism, pg. 2). One of these representations regarding Middle East culture is that they have always been a backwards area of the world in need of Western intervention to stabilize them. It is this construction of Middle Eastern culture in such a fashion that has created the depiction of a “damsel in distress” in need of the civilized Americans to save them from the “big bad terrorists” who are fanatical and continue to push the region ever further into chaos and tyranny. It is these false depictions of the Middle East that effect our decision making as we use these assumptions to justify intervention into the region because they fit our cognitive basis for the kinds of attributes that we must observe in order to classify a terrorist in the first place without actually taking more time to look at a certain situation as a whole despite the fact that, when looking at the Middle East as a whole, we will often see that the region historically has been the birthplace of numerous civilizations and have historically been more culturally and scientifically advanced than Europe in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire, yet we fail to even consider this because our cognitive shortcuts and stereotypes prevent us from ever seeing this because the human mind can only process so much information. Regarding Orientalism’s specific relationship to the construction of terrorism, Richard Jackson from the University of Canterbury writes, “Terrorism is rooted in the assumptions, theories and knowledge of terrorism studies. The discourse derives a great many of its core assumptions, labels and narratives from the long tradition and archive of orientalist scholarship on the Middle East and Arab culture and religion. The discourse draws on a long tradition of cultural stereotypes and deeply hostile media representations and depictions of Islam and Muslims. Typically, in portraying Muslims, the mainstream media has tended to employ frameworks centered on violence, threat, extremism, fanaticism and terrorism, although there is also a visual orientalist tradition in which they are portrayed as exotic and mysterious.” (Jackson, Constructing enemies: “Islamic terrorism “in political and academic discourse, pg. 11-12). The media depictions that Jackson refers to can be the image of a Muslim man engaging in an act of suicide bombing, images of ISIS beheading innocent white tourists, or the various images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center that have circulated since the 9/11 attacks that have assisted in constructing the Middle Eastern individual as a fanatical, irrational terrorist. Thus, it is these everyday images we are constantly exposed to that form our cognitive basis for attributing terrorism as an integral part of our understanding of Middle Eastern culture. It is important to note Jackson’s description of the Muslim man as mysterious that can assist in understanding how that contributes to the stereotype of the Middle Eastern as a terrorist in that the idea of one being “mysterious” creates a lack of transparency in which we cannot know the intentions or motivations behind one’s actions or the details of one’s culture. Thus, we have a very small cognitive base to draw from and the limited resources mean that we are more likely to use the violent media depictions of Middle Eastern culture to form the basis for which we categorize people as terrorists as well as the anxiety and fear that is created from that lack of transparency. Fear and anxiety are two emotions that will drive us to search for information from sources that are more likely to continue those depictions in order to reassure and validate that we are making the right assumptions about a particular cultural group. In laymen’s terms, our fear of the mysterious Middle Eastern will cause us to go to Fox News more in order to learn more about how the violent Middle Eastern from ISIS are envious of American life an culture and seek to destroy it. It is this emotion of fear that can be an inroad into how affect can play a role as a cognitive shortcut in assisting in the construction of terrorism as a part of Islamic culture.

Affect is a significant cognitive shortcut that is instrumental in forming the emotions and influencing the policies that we as individuals are likely to take as measures to deal with the Middle Eastern terrorist that we have constructed for ourselves. In giving a foundation for the role affect plays in political psychology, David Patrick Houghton writes, “It is clear that no account of the psychology of politics would be remotely

complete without an account of the role that emotion—or “affect” as it is

sometimes called—plays within it. Many phenomena in politics involve emotion

and feelings rather than just the “cold” kind of information-processing. Political stimuli often provoke strong emotions, feelings such as liking, dislike, happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, gratitude, disgust, revenge, joy, insecurity, fear, anxiety, and so on.

We do not look at politics neutrally, as some kind of super-advanced, artificially intelligent computer might. Very few people can look at a photograph of George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton, for instance, or a picture of an airplane slamming into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2002, without feeling something. Few Americans can look at a picture of Osama Bin Laden and not feel anger, contempt, or some other negative emotion. (Houghton, Political Psychology 2nd Edition, pg. 132). Our emotions play a key role in determining the willingness we have to process certain pieces of information around us. In the context of terrorism, the feelings of anger and fear that come from seeing an image of Osama Bin Laden or the sight of the twin towers crumbling because a plane crashed into it will influence the pieces of information we are willing to process. Because of the role Orientalism has played in creating the fundamental attributes that we use to categorize the Middle Eastern terrorist, the negative emotions of fear and anxiety will mean that we are more likely to process information from a source that continues to uphold these depictions while a negative emotion like anger will mean that we are more likely to reject a source of information that will challenge those assumptions because we cannot fathom ever considering that the people who dared to hurt innocent American lives could not be a representative for the Middle East as a whole. On theoretical basis that can explain how affect can affect information processing is the theory developed by Milton Lodge and Charles Taber, which, as explained by Houghton, states, “They assume three things: (1) all political stimuli are affectively charged (the “hot cognition” hypothesis); (2) people keep in their heads an online, constantly updated “running tally” which includes their feelings about these stimuli; and (3) how a person “feels” generally affects the reception of stimuli as well. “The clear expectation is that most, if not all, citizens will be biased reasoners, finding it nearly impossible to evaluate any new information in an evenhanded way,” Houghton, Political Psychology 2nd Edition, pg. 138). Points two and three are particularity important in the understanding of affect and cognition in relation to the construction of the Middle East terrorist. If emotions of anger and fear can be considered the “hot” emotions that cause people to keep a “running tally” in their heads, then those very same emotions will cause them to not only be more receptive to information that depicts the Middle Eastern individual as a violent terrorist, but will make that individual actively seek that kind of information to reinforce their biases and actively avoid sources of information that will challenge those biases. We are more likely to actively seek out a video of an ISIS beheading to prove a point to other individuals that the Middle East as a whole is a region to fear because groups like ISIS exist in the first place and that we are nothing like those individuals. While affect theory can provide some insight into the construction of terrorism as being a part of the Middle East, the question becomes whether there is any empirical evidence to support the understanding of such a theory.

In an attempt to measure the emotions that could be seen as a result of the 9/11 attacks in New York and the emotions associated with terrorism, Jennifer Lerner, Roxana Gonzalez, Deborah Small and Baruch Fischhoff, conducted an experiment in 2003 in which they asked a random sample size of 1,786 surveyors on September 20th and November 10th what they knew about terrorist attacks and then asked then showed them images of terrorism from the New York Times and CNN, in which they were asked to describe how those attacks made them feel angry and if there were any feelings of anxiety, which they would score on a scale ranging from 1-8. (Lerner, Effects of Fear and Anger on Perceived Risks of Terrorism; A National Field Experiment, pg. 145). Respondents were then asked to rank how much they would support certain government policies based on a scale that ranged from 1 being strongly opposed and 4 being strong support. Their results were somewhat conclusive in that the mean indicator for self-reported anger was 5.06 while the mean for self-reported fear was 3.46. When evaluating feelings of risk for the United States, the mean for fear increased to 3.62. (Lerner, Effects of Fear and Anger on Perceived Risks of Terrorism; A National Field Experiment, pg. 146). Even more interesting was that the probability for taking precautionary measures for oneself based on these emotions rose from 25 to 30% among males and 30 to 35% to for females among those who reported high levels of fear while it is even higher among the probability for precautionary measures they felt other average Americans should take, rising from 45 to 50% for males and 50 to 55% for females. (Lerner, Effects of Fear and Anger on Perceived Risks of Terrorism; A National Field Experiment, pg. 147). While the raw emotions reported were not as high among the respondents as a whole, it seemed that feelings of anger and fear made them more receptive to the negative images portrayed by common American news outlets and that those emotions made them more likely to suggest precautionary measures based off of the information they processed. Those images could potentially be images of a Middle Eastern terrorist, associating those feelings of fear and anger with that group as a whole and supporting Jackson’s theoretical description of the “mysterious Middle Eastern man” as contributing to the association of Islam with terrorism. What is even more interesting is that individuals are more likely to suggest precautionary measures for other average Americans than themselves, indicating that affect may contribute to the formation of a common “American” identity on the basis of a common culture and lifestyle. It is this formation of an identity that reinforces the binary between the “pure” American and the “mysterious, Middle Eastern” terrorist based on fear.

The fact that Americans seem more likely to recommend precautionary measures based on feelings of fear to others over themselves seems to indicate that Americans may be more likely to see themselves as a whole rather than as individuals when it comes to the construction of terrorism. Once again, Cottam explains the theoretical basis for this phenomenon when she writes, “We classify others into groups, and we classify ourselves into groups as well. Groups we belong to are called in-groups, and those who do not belong are out-groups.” (Cottam, Introduction to Political Psychology, pg. 47). The basis for distinguishing between in-groups and out-groups are traits relating to common culture, lifestyle and language. In the context of terrorism, the in-group can be seen as the American who we classify based on a lifestyle of enjoying baseball, hot dogs, a love for liberty, republicanism, a figure of stability, and a white, English speaking individual. We begin to form these in-groups among individuals whom share those traits with us and classify those who do not into out-groups. However, on the basis for Cottam’s definition alone, there exists no basis for hostile feelings from an in-group to an out-group. Emotions of fear and anger that limit our receptiveness to certain pieces of information pertaining to the Middle East and contribute to the formation of Orientalism that influences our construction of terrorism can contribute to those hostile definitions as we will engage in those interactions immediately on a negative level because of the preconceived bias we have come into those interactions with in the first place. On the international level where the formation of a concrete American identity that functions as an in-group can best be understood by Steele’s approach when he writes, “Ontological security is important because its fulfillment affirms it’s self identity. Nation-states seek ontological security because they want to maintain consistent self-concepts, and the ‘Self’ of states is constituted and maintained through a narrative which gives life to routinized foreign policy actions.” (Steele, Ontological Security in International Relations, pg. 2-3). Applying this theoretical approach, the Middle Eastern terrorist becomes a necessary figure to construct in order to protect our conceptions of who we are and reassure ourselves that we never lost them. The Middle Eastern terrorist becomes the irrational, uncivilized, mysterious and fanatical “Other” we must exterminate to maintain our consistent conception of ourselves and our cohesion as an in-group. This would explain why Americans are more likely to recommend precautionary measures based on emotions of fear. It is the fear of losing those consistent self-conceptions of our identity that unify our individual goals to a common goal of security. It is this unification of goals born out of security and fear that necessitates the construction of the Middle Eastern terrorist based on our biased assumptions of how we classify individuals as such so that, once we exterminate the “Other” we can feel safe in knowing that we have gone some way into eliminating any possible out-groups whom threaten our identity.

Steele’s second point about the need to maintain a grand narrative to preserve self-conceptions can also explain the role of American exceptionalsim and its relationship to terrorism. In this case, the narrative of American exceptionalism is maintained through constant interventions and pre-emptive policies that are targeted by the Middle East because of the Orientalist stereotypes we hold about the region. The extermination of the Middle Eastern terrorist becomes the method by which we maintain a grand narrative of America as the “protector of liberty and democracy, as well as the promoter of peace” when we are perceived to have eliminated those who hate democracy, embrace religious fanaticism, and represent the antithesis to rationality that has been the foundation of modern civilization. Thus, on the larger international scale, the construction of the Middle Eastern terrorist is constantly necessitated in order to maintain that grand narrative, yet, paradoxically; the threat can never be completely exterminated because to do so would eliminate the one “threat” that has maintained that grand narrative that is crucial to our consistent notions of the “exceptional American self”. These are the ways in which the dynamics between emotion and the construction of in-groups and out-groups has led to the construction of terrorism based on Orientalist biases we form based on our receptiveness to certain pieces of information that are vital to maintaining our consistent notions we have of the “American”.

Works Cited

Steele, Brent J.. Ontological security in international relations self-identity and the IR state. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.


Uhler, Martha L Cottam. Introduction to Political Psychology 2nd Edition. Taylor & Francis, 2009. Print.


Said, Edward W.. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 19791978. Print.


Jackson, Richard. “Constructing Enemies: ˜Islamic Terrorism in Political and Academic Discourse.” Government and Opposition: An International Journal of Comparative Politics 43.3 (2007): 394-426. Wiley Online Library. Web. 9 May 2014.

Houghton, David Patrick. “Affect and Emotion.” Political Psychology: Situations Situations, Individuals, and Cases. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Lerner, Jennifer S., Roxana M. Gonzalez, Deborah A. Small, and Baruch Fischhoff. “Effects Of Fear And Anger On Perceived Risks Of Terrorism: A National Field Experiment.” Psychological Science 14.2 (2003): 144-50. JSTOR. Sage Publications on Behalf of the Association for Physiological Science. Web. 5 May 2015. <http://www.jstor.org.mutex.gmu.edu/stable/40063785?seq=4#page_scan_tab_contents&gt;.











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