On ISIS, Bandura, and the lessons we never learnt


Just yesterday, yet another attack left Europe and the world again in tears, terror, anger and anguish. A new, unknown form of terrorism (terrorism 2.0?), which analyst are still arguing on how to label, is harvesting victims.

The current debate seems to agree on that it is true that terrorists are acting neither under a formal umbrella nor within a coordinated framework of efforts. But there is little agreement on assume whether there is or not an underground strategy. Personally, I think not only the strategy is there (designed by its main beneficiary: ISIS), but also it is proving to be an extremely successful one, as this new form of terrorism is leaving us weaker and, well, terrorised.

To add insult to injury, traditional counter-terrorism language is of no help: ‘war against terrorism‘ and other cheap cries, loved by our western politicians, have lost any meaning, even assuming they had any in first instance. A war against whom, exactly? Against troubled individuals who decide to convey their anti-social disorders under a flag? If it is a war, we might need to realise it is of a such new kind we are facing, something we were not prepared to conceive, let alone to fight. Literally: we are not even sure who should fight this war: the military? Police? Intelligence and secret services? A bunch of psychiatrists?

Nor we have any idea of what’s the battle field like: because attacks can happen everywhere, in every town, in all types of circumstances, beyond any easily identifiable pattern. Problem is this is not a war where tanks and bombs would make a difference: terrorists don’t want to invade our physical, geographical space, but rather our emotional world. They aim at invading and monopolising our minds, our lives, our fears.

The more we talk and debate and express our feelings and rage, the more they are winning. And, crucially, I am afraid, the more we are helping them win.

It is an old and well known issue in social psychology, and it has been addressed in the 60s by one of its better-known fathers, Albert Bandura, and his theory of social learning: the weight of imitation and emulation. Most psychologists refer to emulation by adopting Bandura’s concept of observational learning, i.e. a kind of learning that gets acquired through observing the behaviour of others and that does not require any reinforcement to occur, but only some social models to emulate.

At the dual level we exist and run our lives nowadays in our society (both in our limited socio-physical context and in a wider informational environment, as provided by the internet), social models do not need to come with any special or positive aura: it is just the authority granted to them by our focusing on them, that determines their status of social model.

Media and social media play a sad role in all this. Although responsibility is, in last instance, of individual people, we are all contributing to unleash the hell terrorist so crave for. Unintentionally, of course: but we are just doing what our enemies want us to do, as we allow and facilitate, in the weakest members of our societies, the right psychological conditions for their inner monsters to get ‘activated’. In a famous set of experiments run from Bandura (the Bobo doll experiment), children (not psychopaths of any sort:just children) developed and displayed aggressive behaviour because of emulation, after watching an adult model act aggressively against a Bobo doll.

Public display of violence tends to act as a normalising factor, which we need to be carefully aware about: the simplest metaphor I can think of is the abuse of antibiotics we did so far in our communities, which is somehow leading to the evolution of bacteria being resistant to those drugs. And I cannot help but regard these new type of terrorists exactly as bacteria that needs be fought.

We cannot delude ourselves by simply accessing the well out-dated recipes and solutions we read on newspapers or watch on TV, as mouthed by whoever has an interest in using tears and fear just for justifying their well-paid sit in a parliament: there is no simple way to address such a problem, and inaction is not an answer either.

But we’d better understand how to ensure terrorists don’t get encouraged in behaving the way they do. Chances are this would imply to stop threatening them with the naked gun we keep branding: these people are like evolved bacteria, and death, bombs and the traditional repository of rhetoric statements we could rely on in the past are no longer of help. We need new, more sophisticate and intelligent ‘weapons’. I am sure psycho-war experts are currently studying the issue: but we, as members of our society, should start thinking how to pursue collective behaviour and decision models that neutralise, instead of firing, terrorist criminal pathological acts.

Like most of us, I am not sure how this could be achieved in practice (maybe by asking media and social media to ‘mitigate’ or ‘moderate’ their obsessive focus on terrorism?), but I am quite confident that putting those acts under the light of social scrutiny just somehow transforms terrorists in social models: a catch22 we need to start learning how to deal with.




1 Comment

  • Maria Barresi says:

    This is by far the best article by Dr Veneziano.
    This is an intellectual and well written analysis from an highly educated perspective, I sincerely hope there is more to come.

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