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The psychology of lone-wolf terrorism

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Lone-wolf terrorism is a growing concern for security and a puzzle for social science. We describe two very different cases of lone-wolf terrorism: a meek secretary in nineteenth century Russia who attacks a prison governor, and a criminal turned anti-abortion crusader in twenty-first century USA. These cases point to two explanations of how normal individuals can overcome the “free-rider problem” to undertake solo violence for a political cause. Strong Reciprocity establishes an evolutionary basis for human willingness to punish moral transgressors, even when the transgression is against someone else. Group Identification can enable self-sacrifice for the welfare of others, including actions against those who threaten the group. Discussion suggests that ideology, ideas of justice, and empathy may be more important for solo political action than for action embedded in radical groups or terrorist organizations.
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Keywords: group identification; lone-wolf; relative deprivation; strong reciprocity; terrorism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Psychology,Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn MawrPA 19010, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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