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American Psychologist, In Press
Terrorism: A (Self) Love Story

Re-directing the Significance Quest Can End Violence

Arie W. Kruglanski, Jocelyn J. Bélanger, Michele Gelfand

START Center, University of Maryland

Rohan Gunaratna

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Malkanthi Hettiarachchi

Foundation of Goodness, Sri Lanka

Fernando Reinares

Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid

Edward Orehek

University of Groningen

Jo Sasota

Ohio State University

Keren Sharvit

Haifa University


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concepts of self-love (amour propre) and love of self (amour de soi même) are applied to the psychology of terrorism. Self-love is concern with one’s image in the eyes of respected others, members of one’s group. It denotes one’s feeling of personal significance; the sense that one’s life has meaning in accordance with the values of one’s society. Love of self, in contrast, is individualistic concern with self-preservation, comfort, safety, and the survival of self and loved ones. We suggest that self-love defines a motivational force that when awakened arouses the goal of significance-quest. When a group perceives itself in conflict with dangerous detractors, its ideology may prescribe violence and terrorism against the enemy as means of significance gain that gratifies self-love concerns. This may involve sacrificing one’s self-preservation goals, encapsulated in Rousseau’s love of self concept. The foregoing notions afford the integration of diverse quantitative and qualitative findings on individuals’ road to terrorism and back. Understanding the significance quest and the conditions of its constructive fulfillment may be crucial to reversing the current tide of global terrorism.

Terrorism: A (Self) Love Story

Re-directing the Significance Quest Can End Violence

The topic of terrorism might seem ill-suited for a collection of papers devoted to psychology’s positive contributions to conflict resolution. Terrorism, everyone knows, is the incarnation of the bad, the vile and the ugly; an epitome of the evil that men do. What is this sordid topic doing in a collection of essays devoted to the enlightened, humane and hopeful ways of dealing with human disputes? In this article, we argue that the same motivation that when properly directed may uplift humans to their most constructive conciliations may, when misguided, plunge people into mutual destruction, savagery, and mayhem. Consistent with the general tenor of this special issue of the American Psychologist then, we propose that understanding the motivational force potentiating terrorism may show a way for rechanneling it in a positive direction, paving the way to peaceful conflict resolution, and harmony in intergroup relations (see Bar-Tal, Oren, & Nets-Zehngut, 2011, this issue; Staub, 2011, this issue).

This force is what we have called the quest for personal significance (Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman & Orehek, 2009), and what Jean-Jacques Rousseau labeled as self-love, amour propre in French. Rousseau’s “amour propre” denotes self-love that depends on the opinions of others. It is a “passionate need to ‘count’ to ‘be someone’ to be recognized, to matter” (Neuhouser, 2008, p. 31). Though highly consequential in human affairs, the quest for significance isn’t all there is. Rousseau insightfully juxtaposed self-love (amour propre) with love of self (amour de soi-même). Though sounding near identical, the two concepts profoundly differ. Self-love, is about counting and mattering by standards of the normative social reality to which one subscribes, leading the “good life” in accordance with one’s group’s values. In contrast, love of self is about self-preservation, security, survival, comfort, and pleasure. In short, “taking care of number one,” and gratifying one’s individualistic needs and desires (see Table 1).

At times, the quest for significance may override self-preservation motives, inspiring individuals to make personal sacrifices for collective causes. At other times, the self-preservation goals may prevail leading persons away from collective, significance-bestowing, pursuits. Often, too, these two goal-types may be in conflict so that an overriding commitment to one may require suppression of the other (Shah, Kruglanski & Friedman, 2002). We will develop this theme later on in this paper. Our main purpose, however, is to offer a theoretical analysis of two opponent psychological processes: Radicalization –becoming a terrorist, and deradicalization—leaving terrorism behind. These are described subsequently, following a thumb-nail sketch of psychological research on modern terrorism.

The present paper builds on our earlier work on terrorism’s motivational underpinnings (e.g., Kruglanski & Fishman, 2006; Kruglanski et al., 2009; Kruglanski & Orehek, 2011; Kruglanski, Gelfand & Gunaratna, 2012) yet it goes beyond it in a number of important respects: Primarily, it juxtaposes the motivational forces behind radicalization to those behind deradicalization. It further clarifies the relations between ideology and violence, and elaborates on conditions where non-violent ideologies offer a road-map to personal significance. Finally, and not least in importance, it describes previously unreported empirical findings pertinent to the present theory.

Psychological Research on Modern Terrorism

Social scientists’ interest in modern terrorism dates back to the 1960s and 70s when a wave of bombings, hijackings, and kidnapping catapulted the subject to the top of the world’s concerns. This interest spiked following the tragedy of 9/11/2001, the Bali bombing of 12/10/2002, Madrid bombings or 3/11/2004, the London bombing of 7/7/2005, the Mumbai attack in 2008 and the innumerable suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. It is generally recognized that the problem is not going away anytime soon, and that it constitutes a serious threat to world security and stability. The study of terrorism is proceeding apace around the world; numerous institutes and centers have sprung up devoted to research on the topic, and the number of conferences, symposia, and publications on terrorism and political violence exhibits an accelerated growth curve.

What terrorism is not. It seems fair to say that, thus far, psychological research on terrorism has yielded clearer knowledge about what terrorism is not, than what it is. We know now that terrorism is not a kind of psychopathology. We know now that terrorists aren’t crazy, even though their activities are extreme by general standards. We know that a specific personality profile that characterizes a terrorist does not exist; terrorists come in all shapes and forms psychologically speaking. We also know that situational factors like poverty, political oppression, or poor education aren’t the “root causes” of terrorism, though both personality and situation can contribute to terrorism in some circumstances (Kruglanski & Fishman, 2006; Merari, 2010).

What terrorism is. In contrast to the emerging agreement about what terrorism is not, there is less consensus about what terrorism is, and what causes it. Some authors suggests it is the personal states (e.g. of trauma, shock, and anger) that push individuals into terrorism’s arms (e.g., Speckhard & Akhmedova, 2005), that ideology is epiphenomenal to terrorists’ behavior (e.g., Sageman, 2004; 2008), and that it serves as an after-the-fact rationalization of undertaken actions (Bjørgo & Horgan, 2009; McCauley & Moskalenko, 2011). Others emphasize the motivating role of ideology (Gunaratna, 2005), and the “sacred values” that it represents (Ginges, Atran, Medin, & Shikaki, 2007). Yet others put stock in terrorism’s social networks (Bakker, 2006; Hegghamer, 2006; Noricks, 2009; Sageman, 2004; 2008), and highlight the interpersonal ties that bond terrorists together.

Our own approach has been that all these factors matter, and that each plays an important, though not an exclusive, role in prompting terrorism. Needed at this point is a theory that integrates them and elucidates how they interlock and work in concert. In what follows, we sketch an outline of such theory and present some initial evidence for its postulates.

The Quest for Significance (Amour Propre) Theory of Radicalization

Our theory departs from a basic assumption that like most human behaviors, terrorists’ behavior too is goal driven. Simply put, terrorist behavior is the means through which the individual pursues some goal. Admittedly, this isn’t much of a revelation. Goal directed behavior isn’t unique to terrorists. It isn’t even uniquely human. It is pretty much how most animals behave. What makes humans somewhat special is that our behavior is socially grounded. Humans are social beings. More importantly yet, humans are cognitively social. Ants, bees, wasps, etc., though highly social too, do not think much. Humans do. Our goals and means have meaning that is socially determined: It is anchored in cultural norms and values that our group upholds. The application of those general values to engender specific motivation unfolds dynamically via a social process in which persuasion and social influence play a crucial role.

In summary, our quest for significance framework highlights three fundamental elements whose interaction determines terrorists’ behavior. These are (1) the goal that the terrorist is striving to attain, (2) the violent means whereby he or she seeks to attain it, and (3) the social process that binds the goal and means together. This conceptual framework is useful in allowing one to move forward by highlighting the critical questions about the psychology of terrorism, and by suggesting hypotheses as to possible answers.

The Goal Issue: What Motivates Terrorists?

The quintessential question that our framework poses concerns the goal issue; it addresses the all important matter of terrorists’ motivation. The literature on this topic has been extensive, to be sure, and it has produced a long list of possible motives, including honor, trauma, humiliation, heaven, devotion to leader, vengeance, group pressure, even feminism (Bloom, 2004; Gambetta, 2005; Stern, 2004). These are all true and valid in a sense, but at a deeper level they represent, we submit, special cases of a broader, unifying motivation, the quest for significance mentioned earlier. The quest for significance refers to a general motivational force beyond mere survival; it has been recognized by psychological theorists under various labels such as competence or effectance (in White’s 1959 classic; see also Eliott & Dweck, 2005), achievement, self-esteem, mastery, and control motivations (see also Fiske, 2004; Higgins, 2012). The crucial thing is that effectance, esteem, competence, achievement or control are defined socially, or culturally (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001; Sedikides, Gaertner & Toguchi, 2003). That is exactly what the significance quest represents: It is attainment of what the culture says is worth attaining, the kind of competence that the culture values, or control over outcomes that the culture deems worthy, and for which one is accorded the admiration of others who matter to oneself. One’s sense of personal significance affords one self-love in the eyes of others, members of one’s reference group, just as Rousseau envisioned it. To summarize then, we view both the quest for significance (Rousseau’s notion of self-love) and the quest for survival, comfort, and self-preservation (Rousseau’s love of self) as universal human motives that manifest themselves differently in diverse socio-cultural contexts. As we will see, these motives can occasionally give rise to goal conflicts, whereas at other times they can be concomitantly gratified by “multifinal” pursuits (Kruglanski et al., 2002; Kruglanski, Köpetz, Bélanger, Chun, Orehek, & Fishbach, in press).

Awakening the Quest for Significance. As with any motivational force, the quest for significance needs to be specifically activated in order for it to affect behavior (for discussion see Fishbach & Ferguson, 2007; Morsella & Bargh, 2011; Moscowitz & Grant, 2009). Even the most zealous idealists do not “seek significance” all of the time; they too occasionally engage in self-preservation activities, attending to their physiological needs, their security, comfort and so on. In our theory, and in the specific reference to terrorism the quest for significance can be awakened in three general cases, those of (1) significance loss, (2) the threat of loss, and (3) opportunity for significance gain. We consider them in turn.

Significance Loss. A loss of significance can arise for diverse reasons, such as failure in an important pursuit, or a severe humiliation; this applies to the Chechen widows who were rendered powerless, and hence were demeaned and humiliated by having their significant other wrested from them by the Russian forces (Speckhard & Akhmedova, 2005). It applies also to Muslim immigrants to Europe who feel considerable disrespect, and often a rabid “Islamophobia” on part of members of the host community (Sageman, 2004; Kruglanski, Crenshaw, Post, & Victoroff, 2008). “Rousseau vividly describes the violent physical and ‘involuntary’ effect of his own wounded amour propre, when ‘anger and indignation take possession of my senses’: flashing eyes, an inflamed face, trembling limbs, a throbbing heart… and reasoning can do nothing about it” (Neuhouser, 2008, p. 71).

The propaganda tapes of Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations (whose contents we have been analyzing) often use group grievance, the suffering and humiliation of Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo or Palestine to enrage all Muslims and make them feel humiliated. Consider a quote on this point from Abu Yahya al Libi, a major Al Qaeda propagandist1:

“Jihad in Algeria today is your hope with permission from Allah in redemption from the hell of the unjust ruling regimes whose prisons are congested with your youths and children if not with your women; [regime] which thrust its armies, police, and intelligence to oppress you, for which they opened the doors to punish you. ... So add your efforts to theirs, add your energies to theirs. … And know that their victory is your victory... Their salvation is your salvation”.

As may be seen then, al Libi makes salient for his listeners their social identity as Muslims, which in turn renders the humiliation and disempowerment of other Muslims the listeners’ own humiliation and significance loss. This latter strategy is not unique to Islamist terrorists as individual and group grievances appear to be a potent catalyst for terrorists’ motivation in diverse social contexts (della Porta & Rucht, 1995; Moghaddam, 2005; McCauley & Moskalenko, 2011). As Zartman and Khan (2011) put it, “they (i.e., the collective grievances) color personal perceptions of individual hurts and provide the setting for individual feelings of helplessness that lead to violence” (p. 28).

Unrelated Significance Loss. Of interest, significance loss may arise for reasons other than a grievance ascribed to a known enemy or culprit. University of Texas political scientist, Ami Pedahzur (2005) cites examples of Palestinian suicide bombers who were apparently pushed to their desperate activities by stigma, ostracism and loss of self-respect (i.e., severe significance loss) for reasons completely unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A woman who had suffered stigma because she was infertile, another one stigmatized because of a divorce, yet another one accused of an extramarital affair, a boy diagnosed with HIV—each ready to sacrifice all for a cause to erase their significance loss, even though their humiliation had little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as such.

Threat of Significance Loss. The quest for significance can be aroused also when one faces a threat of significance loss should one fail to comply with the normative pressure to engage in terrorism. Ohnuki-Tierney’s (2006) recently analyzed Japanese Kamikaze pilots’ letters and personal diaries. It turns out that many of them valued life and were reluctant to die; unlike the Islamic shahids, they expected little in the way of paradise and its ostensive pleasures as a reward for dying for their country. Rather, they seem to have been actually pressured into “volunteering.” Their sense of shame, had they refused the mission, as well as the honor and solidarity with fallen comrades is, apparently, what prevented them from evading their tragic assignment.

Hayashi Ichizo, a tokkotai pilot (Kamikaze) who died on his mission on February 22th 1945, wrote in a letter to his mother two days before his final flight “I find it so hard to leave you behind...” (he wrote) “I want to be held in your arms and sleep... [yet] All men born in Japan are destined to die fighting for the country. You have done a splendid job raising me to become a honorable man” (Ohnuki-Tierney, 2006, p. 173).

Significance Gain. Finally, significance loss, or threat of loss are not the sole circumstance where a significance quest would be awakened. Another major circumstance for arousing such a quest is opportunity for a significance gain.

The opportunity for significance gain may often come about in the context of a significance loss. This potentially applies to the radicalization process that occurs in prisons. The incarceration experience is typically humiliating and significance reducing. It renders the individual highly vulnerable to radicalization arguments that promise a quick reversal of one’s abject social standing and the conferral of a hero’s status that begets others’ worship. Ali Ammar (Ali La Pointe) the famed Algerian guerilla leader2 used to live a life of petty crime before he was radicalized in prison by members of the Front de Liberation Nationale (the FLN). Richard Reid, the infamous “shoe bomber” converted to Islam in a British prison whereas Jose Padilla, the so called “dirty bomber,” was converted in an American one. Christian Ganczarski responsible for the Djerba bombing off the coast of Tunisia, and Pierre Richard Robert implicated in terrorist attacks in Morocco were criminal recruits to jihadism with prison backgrounds. Other wretched circumstances, not just prison, may foster dreams of grandeur, and prompt the seizing of opportunity for significance gain. A prominent example of that is Velupillai Prabhakaran the revered leader of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, with a cult status to his followers, who prior to his LTTE career had been an ex-smuggler and member of the low fishermen caste in the Tamil community.

In their recent analysis of 19th century Russian Anarchists, Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko (2011) discussed the risk and status mechanism of radicalization illustrated by the story of Alexander Barannikov, member of the terrorist “People’s Will” (Narodnaya Volya) organization. According to those who knew, what attracted him to terrorism was the bravado, courage, and daring that when displayed in pursuit of the group goals promised considerable boost to his status and self-esteem in the eyes of his comrades considerably feeding Barannikov’s “self-love” in Rousseau’s sense.

Ehud Sprinzak (2001), the late Israeli terrorism expert discussed in this vein what he called the “megalomaniacal hyper-terrorists” the likes of Ramzi Yousef (the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), Shoko Asahara (leader of Aum Shnrikyo and architect of the 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway station), Timothy McVeigh (the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber), and Osama bin Laden3. According to Sprinzak these are “self-anointed individuals with larger-than-life callings… and with insatiable urge to use catastrophic attacks in order to write a new chapter in history...” (Sprinzak, 2001, p. 73) Accordingly, Sprinzak proposed to include them in a “Great Men” theory of terrorism.

But the goal of significance gain via terrorism and martyrdom can be less high- blown and exalted. It could be inculcated early in the socialization process, or “bred in the bone” (Post, 2006). Some years ago, the Egyptian daily Ruz al Yusuf (of August 18, 2006) published a report about the Hezbollah Shi’te youth movement “Imam al-Mahdi Scouts.” These children range in age from 8-16, number in tens of thousands, and are indoctrinated with the ideology of radical Iranian Islam. According to Ruz al Yusuf, the objective is “to train high caliber Islamic generation of children who would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of Allah (awlad istishhadiyyun).”

To be sure, the tactic of indoctrinating young children into martyrdom and heroism on behalf of their group isn’t unique to Hezbollah. Hamas is operating summer camps in which approximatey 100,000 boys and girls participate each year. These “summer camps” include extremist Islamic indoctrination, paramilitary training, as well as social activities, all geared toward creating a large pool of future recruits to the ranks of Hamas militants. The Basque ETA too has been known to target young children for purposes of ideological indoctrination, and the creation of future cadres of ETA fighters (Reinares, 2011). Psychologically then, the inculcation in children of heroic themes represents a terrorist organization’s attempt to create an opportunity for immense significance gain in the eyes of young children to be attained via martyrdom for their group’s cause.

Motivational Exclusivity

In basic motivational research in social psychology, we often find that when one’s commitment to a given goal is enhanced, alternative goals are inhibited and suppressed (Bélanger, Lafrenière, Vallerand, & Kruglanski, 2012, Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002). In this manner, increased commitment to the significance quest goal may banish from mind goals in the self-preservation category. Thus, whereas Maslow’s (1943) theory suggests that satisfaction of the baser (physiological, safety) needs is precondition for activation of the higher needs (love, esteem, self-actualization), our theory suggests that the opposite may also occur, and that activation of the higher needs may lead to actual suppression of the lower needs. The following is a testimony of a former Black Tamil Tiger, member of the elite LTTE suicide squads whom one of us (MH) recently interviewed in Sri Lanka:

“Family and relationships are forgotten in that place. There was no place for love. ... That means a passion and loyalty to that group, to those in charge, to those who sacrificed their lives for the group. Then I came to a stage where I had no love for myself. I had no value for my life. I was ready to give myself fully, even to destroy myself, in order to destroy another person.”

In this vein too, research by Scott Atran, Jeremy Ginges and their colleagues suggests that individuals who have become radicalized to Jihad are unlikely to abandon extreme violence against the enemy in order to save a whole family or village from punitive destruction by the adversary. Ginges & Atran (2009) report the results of a representative survey with 1260 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza carried out in December 2005-January 2006. In the context of the survey, respondents were asked:

“What is the position of Islam in your opinion regarding the bomber who carries out the bombing attack (which some call martyrdom attacks while others call suicide attacks) killing himself with the aim of killing his enemies. Does Islam allow such action?”

43% of those who responded ‘yes’ to this question (83.5% of all respondents) also responded ‘no’ to the following two items

“Would it be acceptable to forego/postpone martyrdom if there were a significantly high chance that the chosen martyr’s family would be killed in retaliation?”


“What if the bombing attack led to the destruction of olive trees and the bombing of his home town and school and the death of the students. Would it be acceptable to forego/postpone attack in this case?”

These results suggest that for radicalized individuals the goal of following the dictates of Islam, and thereby gaining significance, is of the highest order, trumping other goals including protecting one’s family, and safeguarding the lives of others in one’s community. Of interest, redressing the injustice and removing the perceived loss of significance (to oneself and one’s group) through highly risky behavior (such as involved in terrorism) is consistent with Kahneman & Tversky’s (1979) prospect theory that postulates a proclivity toward risk seeking for the removal of losses.

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