In parts of the world marked by violence and religious or political conflict, much about the psychological factors that lead to extremism is not well understood.
A new study by an international team of researchers led by neuropsychiatrist Jeff Victoroff, an expert on human aggression at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, suggests that support for religo-political aggression (RPA) in the autonomous Palestinian territory of Gaza is more closely linked to past trauma and perceived political injustice rather than to aggression.
The study found that teenaged Palestinian refugee boys in Gaza who reported that family members had been wounded or killed by Israeli Defense Forces expressed more than twice as much support for RPA. Similarly, boys who felt their group was treated unjustly expressed more than twice as much support for RPA compared to those who did not. In contrast, the data reveled no relationship between trait aggression and support for RPA.
“It might be tempting to think of extremists as aggressive people, and of course there are certainly aggressive extremists in this dangerous world,” said Victoroff, associate professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine. “But our findings suggest two different root causes of support for political violence: traumatic life experiences and a perception of injustice.”
The paper, which appears as the lead article in the journal Aggressive Behavior, is the first of a two-part study looking at aggression among adolescent males in the long-troubled region. The implications of the findings are potentially both tactically and strategically important for the U.S., Victoroff said. Although support for political aggression is widespread in Gaza, the attitudes of teens in the region may determine the future course of the conflict.
“This is actually potentially good news. It lends support to the new counter-insurgency policy that includes energetically addressing human grievances,” he said.
The research team’s findings come as studies of the political psychology of terrorism are at a crossroads, Victoroff said. Some experts subscribe to the idea that individual factors play no part in extremism and that anyone who has contact with an extremist is likely to become an extremist. Others working to understand terrorism disagree.
“If it were just a matter of living in harsh conditions and being in contact with terrorists, then all of the 1.5 million people living in Gaza would support Hamas. They don’t, which suggests that individual factors are important,” Victoroff said. “Since all political attitudes are ultimately mediated by the brain, the question becomes: What is it about the lives, the personal psychologies or the brains of people who have a political grievance that drives some of them, and not others, toward extremism?”
The USC-led team undertook the exploratory research project in Gaza to examine the relationship between political attitudes, psychological factors and support for RPA. Gaza was chosen because it has been the site of continuous violent conflict of varying intensity, and some residents have expressed support for extremist behavior.
The team included researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel, Islamic University in Gaza, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, Stanford University and Claremont Graduate University.
During the second intifada, a period of intensified Palestinian-Israeli violence that began in September 2000, researchers recruited 53 14-year-old boys who were at the time living in a refugee camp outside of Gaza City. The team collected demographic information about the boys and their families, including exposure to political violence. The boys also completed five self-rating questionnaires to measure characteristics such as aggression, anxiety, depression and perceived oppression.
Victoroff emphasized that one should be careful not to draw firm conclusions from one medium-sized study. His research team also investigated how hormones influence extremist attitudes. Since testosterone and cortisol affect brain function, the team tested the hypothesis that levels of these hormones would predict political attitudes. Those results will be published in Part II of their studies.
The study was supported in part by the NATO Security Through Science Programme and by the Freya Foundation for Brain, Behavior and Society.