The Mind of a Terrorist

There’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man. — Kai Anderson, American Horror Story: Cult

It’s hard to turn on the news these days with humans committing more and more extreme acts against one another. Whether that is explicit terrorism or a horrific mass shooting, in response to these events, we often (rightfully) feel anger. Anger, though, is often a “secondary” emotion. That is, we use anger to protect ourselves from or conceal other vulnerable emotions, such as feeling hurt, humiliated, or sometimes, confused.

So, although explanations can’t repair a tragedy or absolve one’s anger, there is some relief in understanding why people would commit such extreme acts.


Humans are unique in their consciousness, a feature that encourages every teenager and up to wonder: “What’s my purpose on this planet?” Indeed, it is an innate part of human life to desire a personal sense of importance; however, that ‘quest for significance’ takes a real hit when we’re humiliated or shamed.

In a previous post, we discussed these ‘self-conscious’ emotions, and a key component of them is feeling a loss of personal significance. For example, when we feel humiliated or ashamed, we tend to subsequently feel useless or unimportant. However, extreme behaviors (acts that “distinguish” us from the crowd) restores a personal sense of significance.

In other words, after committing an extreme (often violent) act, the person suddenly feels like they “matter” in the eyes of themselves or others. For example, think about a mass shooter who went from seeing himself as a “nobody” to being on the cover of every newspaper, the topic of every conversation, the “hashtag” that’s trending on Twitter….

(This is the Pentagon after 9/11) Although unfamiliar to Westerners, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 involved White Europeans coming over and chopping up the Middle East (randomly) into the nation-states they are today. To this day, Middle Easterners feel anger and humiliation that this outside force could come in and divide up their lands and people as they saw fit, spurring much of the antagonism against the West today. Specifically, though, how do you think the humiliation of these events influences extremism from these areas?

To test this “loss of significance to extremism” hypothesis, researchers interviewed two sets of terrorists: the Abu Sayyaf Group (the most violent Islamic separatist group in the southern Philippines) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (a Sri Lankan terrorist organization acknowledged by 32 nations).

With both groups, the researchers administered questionnaires that tapped into the frequency to which these individuals felt humiliation (e.g., “How frequently do you feel like people are laughing at you?”) and the extent to which they endorsed a list of extreme beliefs (e.g., “Armed Jihad is a personal obligation of all Muslims today”).

Here, the researchers found that the more shame or humiliation one felt, the more these individuals supported more extreme beliefs and behaviors in order to (non-consciously) restore this sense of personal value.


Even if one wants to reclaim their sense of significance, it seems like committing mass violence goes against our natural, empathetic selves. But that’s where dehumanization comes in.

Dehumanization has widely been cited as the fundamental means through which violence against peoples and societies is committed. That is, dehumanization causes perpetrators to perceive victims as “nonhuman,” and therefore these victims are not entitled to the moral protection or empathy that would prevent such violence.

Indeed, if you look to perpetrators of mass violence, they will often describe their victims as “animals, apes, or worms,” reinforcing the idea that these “victims” aren’t victims at all, but creatures that deserve to be eliminated.

When we dehumanize others, we tend to deny those individuals “uniquely human” emotions (such as elation, pride, or embarrassment), choosing only to ascribe them more animalistic emotions (such as fear and selfishness). Moreover, we tend to strip them of any cognitive aptitude, refinement, or sense of civility, once more suggesting their eradication would be a good thing.

Interestingly, dehumanization is strongly related to people’s endorsement of social hierarchy: the more a person believes that there should be a strict social order governing how people behave, the more likely they are to engage in dehumanization.

And considering how feelings like humiliation and shame are directly related to social class (i.e., you feel humiliation/shame at a loss of social significance), one can see how in an attempt to regain one’s own significance, the extremist may dehumanize others (i.e., to elevate oneself), which then allows them to commit these extreme/violent acts against them.

So again, although better understanding the mind of those who commit such terrible acts doesn’t resolve any of the horror they brought about, it does help us better understand what motivated them to do it and how we can help prevent it in the future.


Psychophilosophy to Ponder: With the abundance of cell phones, news organizations, social media, etc. extremists seem more prevalent than they are in real life (e.g., the chances of being killed by a force of nature: 1 in 3,000; the chances of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist: 1 in 45,000). How do you think this false sense of frequency influences other extremists’ behaviors? Would thinking that extremism is common motivate them to be more or less likely to commit extremist acts? How could it affect the severity of their behaviors?


Rai, T. S., Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2017). Dehumanization increases instrumental violence, but not moral violence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201705238.

Webber, D., Babush, M., Schori-Eyal, N., Vazeou-Nieuwenhuis, A., Hettiarachchi, M., Bélanger, J. J., … & Gelfand, M. J. (2017). The road to extremism: field and experimental evidence that significance loss-induced need for closure fosters radicalization. Journal of personality and social psychology.


Author: jdt

Jake writes weekly posts every Wednesday on the intersection of psychology and philosophy. To learn more about him, or to propose a topic you'd like him to cover, go to

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