Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict

Posted: 5 Feb 2021

See all articles by Scott Atran

Scott Atran

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; University of Oxford; Artis International

Date Written: January 2021


Fear of transnational terrorism, along with a revitalization of sectarian nationalism, is sundering social and political consensus across the world. Can psychology help? The focus of this review is on the psychological and related social factors that instigate and sustain violent extremism and polarizing group conflict. I first describe the changing global landscape of transnational terrorism, encompassing mainly violent Islamist revivalism and resurgent racial and ethnic supremacism. Next, I explore the psychosocial nature of the devoted actor and rational actor frameworks, focusing on how sacred values, identity fusion, and social network dynamics motivate and maintain extreme violence. The psychology of the will to fight and die is illustrated in behavioral and brain studies with frontline combatants in Iraq, militant supporters in Morocco, and radicalizing populations in Spain. This is followed by a consideration of how to deal with value-driven conflicts and a discussion of how the Internet and social media encourage the propagation of polarized conflict.

Suggested Citation

Atran, Scott, Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (January 2021). Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 72, pp. 471-501, 2021, Vol. 72, pp. 471-501, Available at SSRN: or

Scott Atran (Contact Author)

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ( email )

500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

University of Oxford ( email )

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

Artis International ( email )

Scottsdale, AZ 85254

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics