The Psychology Behind the Brussels Terrorism

The authorities have released pictures of men implicated in the Brussels bombings, one of brusswhom is thought to be still at large. But does the current media analysis mislead as to who is ultimately responsible?

A new study, recently published by Sofia Pinero Kluch from the Gallup public opinion research company, based in Washington, DC, and Alan Vaux, a psychologist at Southern Illinois University, USA, has uncovered some novel and even shocking findings, in a survey of attitudes to terrorism across the world.

This research appears to suggest we should perhaps look beyond individuals, and instead locate causes in communities and cultures.

The investigation, entitled,  “Culture and Terrorism: The Role of Cultural Factors in Worldwide Terrorism (1970–2013),” arose out of an analysis that terrorism seems to spring more frequently from certain countries or cultures.

Terrorism originates from particular communities even if the actual terrorist act is ‘exported’ to another country.  And this appears to explain the Brussels incidents.

For example, this research, published in the academic journal, Terrorism and Political Violence, found of several thousand suicide bombing incidents, 70% occurred in just three countries, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The study used the Gallup World Poll, an annual survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults in at least 140 countries. It covered broad topics of well-being, economics, infrastructure and social and cultural issues, and data on more than 125,000 terrorist incidents around the world from 1970 to 2013, occurring in 208 countries or territories.

Individualism-Collectivism Spectrum

Kluch and Vaux point out that Iraq and Pakistan are scored high on ‘collectivism’ in research on how cultures differ along the ‘Individualism-Collectivism’ spectrum, which reflects the degree to which individuals look after themselves or defer to family and other groups.

Although there is no formal research on Afghanistan,and how ‘collectivist’ it is, it is highly likely to score similarly high on this dimension as do Iraq and Pakistan.

Previous researchers on the topic of whether terrorism is linked to certain cultures have argued that a more ‘collectivist’ culture tolerates and supports suicide terrorism because such an ethos promotes group over individual interests, particularly the values of loyalty, honor, avoidance of shame and group opinion.

A previous study, cited by Kluch and Vaux, of more than 2,000 terrorist incidents world-ide occurring from 1982 to 2006, found that 98% of suicide bombings originated in countries high on ‘collectivism,’ and that no suicide terrorism campaigns originated from ‘individualist’ societies.

The countries where the population, when surveyed, was most rejecting in attitudes of attacks on civilians were Germany, Egypt, France, Estonia and Latvia.

The countries least rejecting of attacks on civilians were Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Senegal.

Tolerance of Terrorism?

A population’s tolerance of terrorism was significantly related to culture, with rejection of attacks on civilians significantly associated with more ‘individualism.’

Kluch and Vaux also found in their study that cultures where there was more civic disengagement, suffering, anger and a lack of hope, were all linked to several forms of terrorism.

Countries where more of the population is voiceless, disengaged from their communities, suffering, angry, and hopeless, were more likely to harbor communities relatively tolerant of terrorism and individuals who engage in terrorism.

Social Norms

Much more surprising is their finding that countries that employ strict social norms to restrain gratification of basic needs, having fun and enjoying life (i.e., low ‘indulgence’) tend to show a higher incidence of severe terrorist attacks, bombings generally and specifically, suicide bombings.

The authors claim this result is a novel finding and that no known prior research has tested the relationship between ‘indulgence’ and terrorism.  It appears that a puritanical orientation—restraining the population’s gratification and enjoyment of life—promotes terrorism.

Perhaps, the authors argue, this situation is because grievances build up without means of resolution. Individuals may experience more frustration that leads to anger and other negative emotions or the population feel less attached to a world that fails to meet their needs.

The authors cited another study for the period 1970 to 2010, of 17,000 attacks perpetrated by 41 organizations in 21 countries.  This research found that countries scoring higher on ‘collectivism’ accounted for 15,036 incidents of terrorism, while countries higher on ‘individualism’ accounted for 2,090, confirming the proposal that terrorism is more prevalent in, and perhaps facilitated by, ‘collectivist’ cultures.

Rejecting 9/11

Countries most rejecting of the 9/11 attack were Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Israel and Latvia.

Countries least rejecting of this attack were Iraq, Honduras, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

Rejection of the 9/11 attack, too, was associated with ‘individualism.’  Rejection of the 9/11 attack was strongest in cultures that are more ‘individualistic’.

Another survey cited by Kluch and Vaux asked citizens across the planet who they believed was behind the 9/11 attack, and in three countries, a substantial group identified Israel (Egypt, 43% of the population; Jordan, 31%; and Palestinian Territories, 19%).

In four countries, 20% or more of respondents identified the U.S. government (Turkey, 36%; Mexico, 30%; Palestinian Territories, 27%; and Germany, 23%).

Kluch and Vaux have shown that countries and cultures across the world vary widely in their tolerance of and attitude to terrorism and that, using general attitudes to terrorism, it may be surprisingly possible to predict where attacks are going to originate.

This research found across the world that sentiments towards the 9/11 attacks appear strongly associated with attitudes to terrorism, which, in turn, provides a breeding ground for future terrorists.

It could be that identifying those cultures could help predict the next attack.

The communities and their issues that incubate terrorism have to be addressed. Otherwise, catching individuals without apprehending the reasons behind such a steady supply, merely renders the world even more unsafe.

Pray for Peace image from Shutterstock


The Psychology Behind the Brussels Terrorism

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen

Dr. Raj Persaud & Dr. Peter Bruggen are regular contributors to Psych Central Professional. Dr. Rajendra Persaud, also known as Raj Persaud, is a leading consultant psychiatrist, broadcaster and author of popular books about psychiatry. He is well known for raising public awareness of psychiatric and mental health issues in the general media. He has published five popular books and has received numerous awards. The Times recently placed him as one of the Top Twenty Mental Health Gurus in the world.

Dr. Peter Bruggen was part of the UK Royal College of Psychiatrist's Podcast Editor Team, with Dr. Persaud. From 1969 to 1994 he was a consultant psychiatrist at Hill End Adolescent Unit, St Albans. He was also a consultant psychiatrist from 1969-90 at the Tavistock Clinic. His work has featured family therapy at the death bed, working with families in the community rather than admitting adolescents to hospital, and staff relationships. Dr. Bruggen has also written three books, including Surviving Adolescence and Helping Families (both with Charles O'Brien), and Who Cares? True Stories of the NHS Reforms, for which he conducted face-to-face interviews with one-hundred people.


APA Reference
Dr. Peter Bruggen, D. (2019). The Psychology Behind the Brussels Terrorism. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Sep 2019
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