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Public Opinions of Suicide Bombers' Mental Health

Public opinions of suicide bombers’ mental health
Adam Lankford
The University of Alabama
This study was designed to explore public opinions of suicide bombers' mental
health, which is a subject of great popular and scholarly debate. In a random
sample of 391 adult residents surveyed by telephone, there did not appear to
be signi cant di erences in answers based on respondents' age, sex, or race.
However, belief that suicide bombers are mentally ill was inversely related to
respondents' level of education. That respondents with less education would
be more apt to believe that suicide bombers are mentally ill can be understood
through prior research on the fundamental attribution error. In this particular
case, however, the least educated respondents' opinions may actually re ect the
latest scienti c ndings on the subject.
For decades, social psychologists have struggled against the fundamental attribution
error. This refers to the human tendency to dismiss the importance of social and situa-
tional variables, and instead attribute behavior almost exclusively to individual factors,
such as personality ( Jones & Harris, 1967 ; Ross, 1977 ). This error appears particularly
common in popular explanations of those who act violently: they are often assumed to
be “bad apples” at their very core, with little thought given to the pressures of context
or culture that may have greatly shaped their actions ( Zimbardo, 2007 ).
A wealth of research has shown the aws in this type of thinking. In controlled ex-
periments, people who followed orders to give electric shocks to innocent victims were
not inherently evil ( Milgram, 1963 ), and people who were assigned to play “prison
guard” and then ended up harassing prisoners were not lifelong sadists ( Zimbardo,
1972 ). More broadly, historical evidence has shown that despite their horri c crimes,
the Nazis were not simply a collection of unfeeling psychopaths ( Browning, 1998 ), and
before their training and indoctrination, many members of terrorist organizations were
essentially ordinary people ( Ho man, 1998 ; Gunaratna, 2002 ).
After the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks on the United States, the fundamen-
tal attribution error appeared to run rampant again—at least in some circles. In certain
popular and political discourse, the terrorist hijackers were not only lambasted for their
murderous actions, but also hastily diagnosed as “monsters,” “evil-doers,” “cowards,”
“lunatics,” “crazy,” and “not rational” ( Pearson, 2001 ; Ellis, 2002 ; Atran, 2003 ). Those
who see their enemies as “monsters” and “evil-doers” may be dehumanizing them, ig-
noring the relevant social and political factors that contributed to their actions, and thus
committing the fundamental attribution error. However, beyond these labels, there is
also the scienti c question of whether suicide terrorists actually struggle with mental
health problems or suicidal tendencies. This remains the subject of heated academic de-
bate (see Lankford, 2014 ).
On one side are scholars who argue that suicide terrorists are psychologically nor-
mal and stable individuals who altruistically sacri ce their lives for an ideological cause
( Atran, 2003 ; Pape, 2005 ; Brym, 2007 ; Post, Ali, Henderson, Shan eld, Victoro , & We-
ine, 2009 ). For instance, Atran (2004 ) concludes this largely based on his interviews of
terrorist leaders and families of deceased attackers: “In truth, suicide terrorists on the
whole have no appreciable psychopathology.” In turn, Pape (2005 ) bases his position
on his research team's attempt to nd information about hundreds of suicide bomb-
ers' lives. They uncovered “no documented mental illness, such as depression, psycho-
sis, or past suicide attempts…no evidence of major criminal behavior…[and] not a sin-
1 Address correspondence to Adam Lankford, Department of Criminal Justice, The University of Alabama,
P.O. Box 870320, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0320 or e-mail ( ).
2 The author would like to thank Debra McCallum, Michael Conaway, and The University of Alabama's Insti-
tute for Social Science Research for supporting this project.
Ammons Scienti c
2014, Volume 3, Article 15
ISSN 2165-2228
DOI: 10.2466/07.CP.3.15
© Adam Lankford 2014
NoDerivs CC-BY-NC-ND
Received March 22, 2014
Accepted September 29, 2014
Published October 16, 2014
Lankford, A. (2014) Public
opinions of suicide
bombers’ mental health.
Comprehensive Psychology,
3, 15.
Suicide Bombers’ Mental Health / A. Lankford
22014, Volume 3, Article 15
Comprehensive Psychology
gle report that a suicide attacker was gay, an adulterer,
or otherwise living in a way that would bring shame”
(pp. 210–211). Both Pape's (2005 ) methods and ndings
have been the subject of signi cant criticism ( Ashworth,
Clinton, Meirowitz, & Ramsay, 2008 ), but his conclu-
sion, that “the uncomfortable fact is that suicide terror-
ists are far more normal than many of us would like
to believe” (p. 211), has been echoed by other scholars.
From their perspective, suicide terrorists are relatively
ordinary people who become fully committed to their
cause because of social and situational factors. They ar-
gue that those who point to individual factors as a cause
of suicide terrorists' behavior may be committing the
fundamental attribution error ( Atran, 2003 ; Brym, 2007 ;
Gray & Dickson, 2014 ; Güss & Tuason, 2014 ).
On the other side of the debate are scholars whose
research reveals signs of personal crises, mental health
struggles, and suicidal tendencies in the lives of many
suicide terrorists. This perspective does not ignore the
in uence of social or situational factors on suicide at-
tackers' lives, but suggests that individual factors may
be very important as well. For example, Merari's (2010 )
research team of psychiatrists conducted direct psycho-
logical assessments of pre-emptively arrested suicide
bombers and two control groups of other terrorists—all
of whom had been in uenced by similar social and po-
litical variables. They found that the suicide attackers
had far more suicidal tendencies, depressive tenden-
cies, signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and pre-
vious suicide attempts in their lives ( Merari, 2010 ). In
addition, Lester (2011 ) found perceived burdensome-
ness among female suicide bombers. Perceived burden-
someness is a well-established risk factor for suicide
( Joiner, 2010 ), and may help explain why these partic-
ular women felt like their families would be better o
with them dead. Along similar lines, Lankford (2013 )
documented more than 135 individual suicide terror-
ists with risk factors for conventional suicide, includ-
ing many who admitted their suicidal ideation or were
believed to be suicidal or depressed by their families.
In addition, Lankford (2013 ) conducted a quantitative
analysis of suicide attackers and other perpetrators of
mass murder-suicide, such as rampage shooters, that
revealed many psychological and behavioral similari-
ties between the various types of killers. More recently,
Lankford (2014 ) o ered a number of empirical predic-
tions about the behavior of suicide terrorists and the or-
ganizations that recruit and deploy them, which indi-
cate that many suicide attackers are indeed struggling
with mental health problems.
On a societal level, however, very little is actually
known about public opinions of suicide bombers' men-
tal health. In fact, empirical evidence is almost nonexis-
tent. The high pro le quotes about “crazy lunatics” that
followed 9/11 may or may not accurately represent pop-
ular opinion. It appears there has been only one previ-
ous study on the subject: a survey of 68 undergraduate
students (20 male, 48 female; M age = 22.1 yr., SD = 5.9)
by Lester and Frank (2008 ). They found that 75% of re-
spondents checked a “yes” box a rming the belief that
suicide bombers are “psychiatrically disturbed” ( Lester
& Frank, 2008 ). This is an interesting nding, but more
information is certainly needed. The present study was
designed to collect data from a much larger sample of
respondents, and then assess any possible demographic
patterns in the age, sex, race, or education level of those
who hold various opinions on the subject.
A statewide omnibus telephone survey was admin-
istered to an anonymous random sample of 391 adult
residents (155 male, 236 female; 72% White, 23% Black,
5% Other race/no answer; M age = 58.2 yr., SD = 15.1).
Table 1 provides full descriptive statistics for the sam-
ple. Along with demographic questions, the broader
survey consisted of questions about problems, issues,
and trends of current social interest. For the purposes of
the present study, participants were speci cally asked,
“Do you believe that most suicide bombers are men-
tally ill?” with the following response options: “Yes,”
“No,” or “Don't Know/No Answer.”
Overall, 191 respondents (48.9%) answered “Yes” that
they believed most suicide bombers are mentally ill,
158 (40.4%) answered “No,” and 42 (10.7%) answered
“Don't Know/No Answer.” This means that of the 349
individuals who believed they knew or at least pro-
vided a Yes/No response, 54.7% answered “Yes.”
Chi-squared and ANOVA tests did not reveal any
statistically signi cant di erences in answers according
to respondents' age, sex, or race. However, there did ap-
Descriptive Statistics ( N = 391)
Variable Min. Max. M SD
Age 19 95 58.24 15.07
Sex (0 = female; 1 = male) 0 1 0.40 0.49
Race (1 = white; 2 = black; 3 = other/NA) 1 3 1.32 0.56
Education (1 = 8th grade or less; 2 = grade 9–11; 3 = 12th grade, GED; 4 = Any
college; 5 = Four year degree; 6 = Grad/prof. school; 7 = other/NA) 1 7 3.9 1.25
Suicide Bombers’ Mental Health / A. Lankford
32014, Volume 3, Article 15
Comprehensive Psychology
pear to be a signi cant relationship between the high-
est level of education that respondents completed, and
the belief that suicide bombers are mentally ill. These
results appear in Table 2 . The relationship between ed-
ucation and response type appeared inverse; in other
words, those with more education were less likely to
answer “Yes” about suicide bombers' mental illness
2 (12, N = 391) = 26.50, p = .009, φ = 0.18].
The results of the present study suggest that public
opinions of suicide bombers' mental health are not uni-
form; they are split almost evenly between those who
believe that most suicide bombers are mentally ill, and
those who believe otherwise. This suggests that past
scholars who have generalized that the public on the
whole has committed the fundamental attribution error
on this subject would seem to have overstated their case
( Atran, 2003 ; Pape, 2005 ; Brym, 2007 ). After all, there is
not a strong consensus on either side.
Respondents who indicated that most suicide bomb-
ers are not mentally ill likely attribute these attackers'
behavior to social and situational factors, because the
most common alternative explanations are typically
that suicide terrorists commit altruistic self-sacri ce for
the good of their group or ideological cause ( Lankford,
2013 ). However, the present survey did not explicitly
measure the prevalence of this alternative view, so fol-
low-up research that sheds more light on these di ering
opinions would be of additional value.
Respondents who stated that suicide bombers are
mentally ill may have been committing the fundamen-
tal attribution error. If these participants were similar
to those surveyed by Lester and Frank (2008 ), it would
seem likely. More than 70% of Lester and Frank's (2008 )
respondents not only characterized suicide bombers as
“psychiatrically disturbed,” but also as “irrational” and
“evil.” They seemed to assume that anyone who inten-
tionally kills him- or herself in a suicide attack must be an
inherently bad person and incapable of rational thought,
which is not what the research on either side shows. In
fact, it is well established that people who commit sui-
cide, murder-suicide, and suicide terrorism are often lu-
cid, and they commonly make strategic plans about their
deaths that require rational calculations of cause and ef-
fect ( Maris, Berman, & Silverman, 2000 ).
The nding that respondents' belief that suicide
bombers are mentally ill appeared inversely related to
their education level also supports the possibility that
some were committing the fundamental attribution
error. Although educated people may make this error
( Bauman & Skitka, 2010 ), education tends to improve
the consideration that students give to the e ect of cul-
tural, social, and situational factors on behavior ( Rig-
gio & Garcia, 2009 ). This starts early in grade school
and continues throughout the educational process. As
Comparison of Respondents with Di erent Opinions on Suicide Bombers' Mental Health ( N = 391)
Question: “Do you believe that most suicide bombers are mentally ill?”
( n = 191, 48.8%)
( n = 158, 40.4%)
“Don't Know/NA”
( n = 42, 10.7%)
X 2 F
Age, yr. ( M, SD ) 58.4 (15.3) 57.2 (14.6) 61.7 (15.8) 1.53
Sex 3.72
Female ( n = 236) 48.3% 38.6% 13.1%
Male ( n = 155) 49.7% 43.2% 7.1%
Race 1.07
White ( n = 283) 48.4% 41.3% 10.2%
Black ( n = 90) 51.1% 37.8% 11.1%
Other/NA ( n = 18) 44.4% 38.9% 16.7%
Education 26.50
th gr. or less ( n = 11) 63.6% 36.4% 0.0%
Grade 9–11 ( n = 27) 59.3% 37.0% 3.7%
th gr., GED ( n = 124) 55.6% 33.9% 10.5%
Any college ( n = 112) 46.4% 34.8% 18.8%
4 yr. degree ( n = 65) 44.6% 49.2% 6.2%
Grad/prof. ( n = 51) 33.3% 60.8% 5.9%
NA ( n = 1) 100.0% 0.0% 0.0%
* p < .05. p < .01.
Suicide Bombers’ Mental Health / A. Lankford
42014, Volume 3, Article 15
Comprehensive Psychology
Pinker (2011 ) summarizes, students are increasingly
taught the importance of cultural in uences: “Today's
children have been encouraged to take these cognitive
leaps with gentle instructions such as…‘Yes, the things
those people do look funny to us. But the things we do
look funny to them'” (p. 311). One would expect respon-
dents with the least amount of education to be most apt
to commit the fundamental attribution error, and thus
solely attribute suicide terrorists' behavior to individual
factors such as mental illness.
Ironically, then, in this study it may actually be
many of the least educated respondents whose opin-
ions on the mental illness of suicide bombers most ac-
curately correspond with the latest scienti c ndings
( Merari, 2010 ; Lester, 2011 ; Lankford, 2013 , 2014 ). This
seems largely attributable to luck; sometimes people are
right for the wrong reasons.
A broader concern is whether this overall case illus-
trates a growing risk for the social sciences and edu-
cated society at large. As people become increasingly
informed about the dangers of the fundamental attri-
bution error—and adjust their biases to avoid commit-
ting it—they may go too far. In their apparent eagerness
to avoid attributing everything about suicide terrorists'
behavior to their individual psychology, many scholars
jumped to the conclusion that “suicide terrorists exhib-
it no socially dysfunctional attributes” ( Atran, 2003 , p.
1537). A more accurate middle ground must exist. Ul-
timately, as Funder (2014 ) wisely observes in his dis-
cussion of the subject, “sometimes people overestimate
the importance of dispositional factors, and sometimes
they overestimate the importance of situational factors,
and the important thing, in a particular case, is to try to
get it right” (p. 368).
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the prevalence of correspondence bias in the general popula-
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Browning , C. ( 1998 ) Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and
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... This suggests that, across different cultural contexts, the same underlying social psychological processes might explain why some individuals are compelled to commit violent extremist acts to defend Muslims. Scholars from various disciplines have proposed various causes of Islamist extremism (see Loza, 2007), pointing to Islamic ideology (Silber & Bhatt, 2007), political strategy (e.g., Furnish, 2005), social identification processes (Hogg, Meehan, & Farquharson, 2010), threat perceptions (Obaidi, Kunst, Kteily, Thomsen, & Sidanius, 2018;, and mental illness (Lankford, 2014;Piven, 2002). However, only a fraction of the academic literature on terrorism is based on empirical data (see Sageman, 2014;Silke, 2004). ...
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A sense of shared Muslim suffering seems to play a key role in uniting Muslims around the world. Therefore, in the current paper we hypothesized that the social psychological underpinnings of Islamist extremism would be similar for Muslims living in the West and Muslims living in countries with prolonged and ongoing exposure to Western-led military interventions. Across 4 studies among Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Ns = 425, 402, and 127) and Muslims living in 20 Western countries (N = 366), we examined a path model in which group-based anger mediated the link between Muslim identification, perceived injustice of Western military and foreign policy, and violent behaviour intentions. Our results indicate that regardless of whether Muslims live in places with prolonged and ongoing experience of Western military interventions or not, the social psychological factors predicting violent Islamist extremism appear to be similar. We discuss implications for future theory and research.
... Modern suicide terrorism has some peculiarities. 1,2 First, this phenomenon is no longer confined to the countries of the Middle East, traditionally characterized by political instability, but now occur throughout the world. Second, the most recent attacks in Western countries have been perpetrated by first-or secondgeneration immigrants raised according to local rules and educated in local schools, who suddenly, at some point in their personal trajectory, embraced religious radicalization and repudiated the values of their societies. ...
After reviewing the available literature about the main hypotheses on suicide terrorism and the psychological characteristics of terrorists that have been proposed throughout the years, the present authors have put forward some personal considerations on what the distinctive traits of today’s suicide bombers might be. In spite of the heterogeneity and paucity of “real” data, it is evident that there is no peculiar familial, educational, or socioeconomic factors that may account for religious radicalization leading to suicide terrorism. On the contrary, some common psychological features can be highlighted: such as isolation, feelings of emptiness, cold rationality, a lack of empathy, and a lust for martyrdom and death. To die to kill: this is the core feature, a sort of organizer that can twist higher cognitive and emotional processes, resulting in the supreme and highly rewarding suicidal and killing behaviors.
Evil, Terrorism and Psychiatry - edited by Donatella Marazziti February 2019
Unavoidably, psychiatrists and criminologists have to cope with evil, as very often they are asked to provide psychiatric explanations for heinous behaviors that have nothing to do with our sense of humanity, except that they are perpetrated by men and also, although less often, by women (it is a real novelty of the last few decades that women may become as ferocious as men). The question of how to explain these behaviors as possibly the product of a mental illness or possibly due to “evil” becomes particularly pressing in several specific situations. This includes times of war (Why was there the Holocaust? Why has there been torture?), genocide, and murder rampages. More recently, situations often calling for psychiatrists to judge mental illness versus evil has included terrorist attacks carried out by suicide bombers, now perpetrated nearly everywhere, not only in traditionally recognized unstable regions like the Middle East, but also in Western countries, at the heart of what is considered the cradle of modern civilizations.
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Lankford criticizes the notion that suicide terrorists are "normal" and argues that they are suicidal. We have two misgivings about this. First, he puts sole focus on the personal side of suicidality and ignores the individual's context. Second, he fails to elaborate on the intent to harm others, which must also include the cultural, political, religious/ideological, and social-organizational factors of suicide terrorism.
Inside Al Qaeda examines the leadership, ideology, structure, strategies, and tactics of the most violent politico-religious organization the world has ever seen. The definitive work on Al Qaeda, this book is based on five years of research, including extensive interviews with its members; field research in Al Qaeda-supported conflict zones in Central, South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East; and monitoring Al Qaeda infiltration of diaspora and migrant communities in North America and Europe. Although founded in 1988, Al Qaeda merged with and still works with several other extremist groups. Hence Al Qaeda rank and file draw on nearly three decades of terrorist expertise. Moreover, it inherited a full-fledged training and operational infrastructure funded by the United States, European, Saudi Arabian and other governments for use in the anti-Soviet Jihad. This book sheds light on Al Qaeda's financial infrastructure and how they train combat soldiers and vanguard fighters for multiple guerrilla, terrorist and semi-conventional campaigns in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caucuses, and the Balkans. In addition, the author covers the clandestine Al Qaeda operational network in the West. Gunaratna reveals: how Osama bin Laden had his mentor and Al Qaeda founder, "Azzam", assassinated in order to take over the organization and that other Al Qaeda officers who stood in his way were murdered, Al Qaeda's long-range, deep-penetration agent handling system in Western Europe and North America for setting up safe houses, procuring weapons, and conducting operations, how the O55 Brigade, Al Qaeda's guerrilla organization, integrated into the Taliban, how the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui forced Al Qaeda to move forward on September 11, how a plan to destroy British Parliament on 9/11 and to use nerve gas on the European Union Parliament were thwarted, how the Iran--Hezbollah--Al Qaeda link provided the knowledge to conduct coordinated, simultaneous attacks on multiple targets, including failed plans to destroy Los Angeles International Airport, the USS Sullivan, the Radisson Hotel in Jordan, and eleven US commercial airliners over the Pacific ocean, that one-fifth of international Islamic charities and NGOs are infiltrated by Al Qaeda, how the US response is effective militarily in the short term, but insufficient to counter Al Qaeda's ideology in the long-term. Finally, to destroy Al Qaeda, Gunaratna shows there needs to be a multipronged, multiagency, and multidimensional response by the international community.
Lankford claims that suicide terrorists are suicidal, but that their suicidal tendencies are often frustrated by injunctive social norms. Martyrdom represents a solution, and terrorist organizations exploit this. In this commentary, we claim that this argument has not been fully made and that such ideation in itself does not explain a willingness to engage in punitive actions against an enemy. We suggest the psychology of kinship as a possible missing factor. How to Cite This Article Link to This Abstract Blog This Article Copy and paste this link Highlight all Citation is provided in standard text and BibTeX formats below. Highlight all BibTeX Format @article{BBS:9335732,author = {Gray,Jacqueline M. and Dickins,Thomas E.},title = {Suicide terrorism and post-mortem benefits},journal = {Behavioral and Brain Sciences},volume = {37},issue = {04},month = {8},year = {2014},issn = {1469-1825},pages = {369--370},numpages = {2},doi = {10.1017/S0140525X13003403},URL = {},} Click here for full citation export options. Blog This Article Copy and paste this code to insert a reference to this article in your blog or online community profile: Highlight all Suicide terrorism and post-mortem benefits Jacqueline M. Gray and Thomas E. Dickins (2014). Behavioral and Brain Sciences , Volume 37 , Issue04 , August 2014 pp 369-370 The code will display like this Suicide terrorism and post-mortem benefits Jacqueline M. Gray and Thomas E. Dickins (2014) Behavioral and Brain Sciences, , Volume 37, Issue04, August 2014 pp 369-370 Jacqueline M. Gray and Thomas E. Dickins (2014). Suicide terrorism and post-mortem benefits. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, pp 369-370 doi:10.1017/S0140525X13003403 Metrics Related Content Related Articles
The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers proposes that suicide terrorists are psychologically and behaviorally similar to other people who commit suicide, due to a range of individual, social, and situational factors. Some commentators agree, while others are skeptical, given the lack of information about many attackers' lives. However, the book's position is not simply based on individual case studies; it is also supported by other independent assessments, the confirmation of empirical predictions, the paucity of contradictory evidence, and new applications of evolutionary theory. It is undisputed that human beings behave as the author suggests; it is unknown if they behave as the conventional wisdom suggests. Those who argue that suicide terrorists are psychologically normal and altruistically sacrificing their lives for an ideological cause should bear the burden of proof for those claims.
Lankford's book makes the important point that analyses of suicide terrorists often commit the error of overestimating the importance of situational causes of behavior and underestimating dispositional causes, such as underlying pathology. Personality and individual differences are important; suicide terrorists are not ordinary people driven by situational pressures. However, citation of empirical evidence is haphazard; the scholarly argument is not well-developed.
For years, scholars have claimed that suicide terrorists are not suicidal, but rather psychologically normal individuals inspired to sacrifice their lives for an ideological cause, due to a range of social and situational factors. I agree that suicide terrorists are shaped by their contexts, as we all are. However, I argue that these scholars went too far. In The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, I take the opposing view, based on my in-depth analyses of suicide attackers from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and North America; attackers who were male, female, young, old, Islamic, and Christian; attackers who carried out the most deadly and the least deadly strikes. I present evidence that in terms of their behavior and psychology, suicide terrorists are much like others who commit conventional suicides, murder-suicides, or unconventional suicides where mental health problems, personal crises, coercion, fear of an approaching enemy, or hidden self-destructive urges play a major role. I also identify critical differences between suicide terrorists and those who have genuinely sacrificed their lives for a greater good. By better understanding suicide terrorists, experts in the brain and behavioral sciences may be able to pioneer exciting new breakthroughs in security countermeasures and suicide prevention. And even more ambitiously, by examining these profound extremes of the human condition, perhaps we can more accurately grasp the power of the human survival instinct among those who are actually psychologically healthy.