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Public opinions of suicide bombers’ mental health
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 signiﬁ cant diﬀ 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 reﬂ ect the
latest scientiﬁ c ﬁ 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 ﬂ 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 horriﬁ 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 ( Hoﬀ 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 scientiﬁ 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 sacriﬁ ce their lives for an ideological cause
( Atran, 2003 ; Pape, 2005 ; Brym, 2007 ; Post, Ali, Henderson, Shanﬁ eld, Victoroﬀ , & 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 ﬁ 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 ( email@example.com ).
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 Scientiﬁ c
2014, Volume 3, Article 15
© Adam Lankford 2014
Received March 22, 2014
Accepted September 29, 2014
Published October 16, 2014
Lankford, A. (2014) Public
opinions of suicide
bombers’ mental health.
Suicide Bombers’ Mental Health / A. Lankford
22014, Volume 3, Article 15
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 ﬁ ndings
have been the subject of signiﬁ 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
inﬂ 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 inﬂ 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 oﬀ
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 ) oﬀ 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 proﬁ 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 aﬃ rming the belief that
suicide bombers are “psychiatrically disturbed” ( Lester
& Frank, 2008 ). This is an interesting ﬁ 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 speciﬁ 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 signiﬁ cant diﬀ 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
pear to be a signiﬁ 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-sacriﬁ 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 diﬀ 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 ﬁ 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 eﬀ 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 Diﬀ 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%)
( 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
Female ( n = 236) 48.3% 38.6% 13.1%
Male ( n = 155) 49.7% 43.2% 7.1%
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
Pinker (2011 ) summarizes, students are increasingly
taught the importance of cultural inﬂ 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 scientiﬁ c ﬁ 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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