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Know Thy Enemy: Education About Terrorism Improves Social Attitudes Toward Terrorists

Know Thy Enemy: Education About Terrorism Improves Social Attitudes Toward Terrorists


Hatred of terrorists is an obstacle to the implementation of effective counterterrorism policies—it invites indiscriminate retaliation, whereas many of the greatest successes in counterterrorism have come from understanding terrorists’ personal and political motivations. Drawing from psychological research, traditional prejudice reduction strategies are generally not well suited to the task of reducing hatred of terrorists. Instead, in two studies, we explore education’s potential ability to reduce extreme negative attitudes toward terrorists. Study 1 compared students in a college course on terrorism (treatment) with wait-listed students, measuring pro-social attitudes toward a hypothetical terrorist. Initially, all students reported extremely negative attitudes; however, at the end of the semester, treatment students’ attitudes were significantly improved. Study 2 replicated the effect within a sample of treatment and control classes drawn from universities across the United States. The present work was part of an ongoing research project, focusing on foreign policy and the perceived threat of terrorism; thus classes did not explicitly aim to reduce prejudice, making the effect of treatment somewhat surprising. One possibility is that learning about terrorists “crowds out” the initial pejorative associations—i.e. the label “terrorism” may ultimately call more information to mind, diluting its initial negative associative links. Alternatively, students may learn to challenge how the label “terrorist” is being applied. In either case, learning about terrorism can decrease the extreme negative reactions it evokes, which is desirable if one wishes to implement effective counterterrorism policies.

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Theriault, Jordan, Peter Krause, and Liane Young. 2017. "Know Thy Enemy: Education About Terrorism Improves Social Attitudes Toward Terrorists." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (January). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310314034_Know_Thy_Enemy_Education_About_Terrorism_Improves_Social_Attitudes_Toward_Terrorists

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