PsycCRITIQUES book review: Examining concepts of war, torture and terrorism in global context

Linda M. Woolf reviews the “International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism.”

The book review reprinted here is courtesy of PsycCRITIQUES editor Danny Wedding. PsycCRITIQUES is an online journal that provides reviews of books, monographs, films and other productions in psychology stretching back to 1956. Readers can also access selected reviews and discuss books important to the science and profession of psychology by visiting the PsycCRITIQUES blog. For more information see PsycCRITIQUES online. If you are interested in reviewing, please contact editor Danny Wedding.

Examining Concepts of War, Torture, and Terrorism in Global Context

According to the United Nations Development Programme report (2005), the 20th century was the bloodiest century of recorded history, with over 4 percent of the world’s population lost to conflict-related deaths (p. 153). Unfortunately, the 21st century appears to be equally bloody with war, terrorism, and intrastate conflict impacting many regions around the globe. Thus, it is imperative that scholars investigate the causes and consequences of various forms of mass violence. Such scholarship assists international and domestic policy makers, diplomats, peacemakers, communities, nongovernmental agencies, and others in efforts aimed at all stages of conflict, from prevention to postconflict reconstruction and reconciliation.

International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism A key component in any political decision is the mind-set of those directly affected by conflict and attempts at intervention. This mind-set must be studied in context, as the experience of armed conflict varies considerably depending on the community and region. Yet, research in this area is limited. Thus, politicians and policy makers may ground their decisions in ethnocentric biases failing to take into account the attitudes, beliefs, values, and attributions of those living in regions most directly affected by war and terrorism. History is replete with examples of faulty political conclusions and actions grounded in such bias (Fisher, Schneider, Borgwardt, & Ganson, 1997). The International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism represents a pioneering work that attempts to fill the research void. This text examines the antecedent emotions and beliefs of individuals around the globe concerning concepts such as war, terrorism, national security, invasion, and torture.

Impressive in scope, the International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism contains the results of empirical research conducted on six continents in over 40 countries. The Group on International Perspectives on Governmental Aggression and Peace (GIPGAP) coordinates this ongoing international collaborative project and is headed by one of the Handbook’s editors, Kathleen Malley-Morrison. The primary research instrument developed and used by GIPGAP is the Personal and Institutional Rights to Aggression and Peace Survey (PAIRTAPS). This broadly based survey includes both qualitative and quantitative elements, and the text provides extensive information about how the instrument was used and the data coded. The book is filled with an impressive amount of data, which provides a statistical glimpse of trends within regions, and also a rich narrative grounded in numerous qualitative examples.

The International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism is divided into four broad sections: Definitions of War, Torture, and Terrorism; National Security; Invasion; and Perspectives on Torture. Each section of the text is first introduced with a brief discussion of the general topic (e.g., invasion), including specific information related to the unique coding process used for that topic. The final chapter in each section is an overview and integrative synthesis of the intermediate chapters. The intermediate chapters focus on the PAIRTAPS study for globally linked regions (i.e., Western Europe; Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States; Russia and the Balkans; Middle East; Gulf States; Africa; Latin America and Southeast Asia; and East Asia).

Each chapter reads like a journal article, with an opening historical overview of the region in relation to the topic (e.g., war), followed by an overview of the methods and results of the survey, and concluding with a discussion of the results. Each chapter is incredibly dense, with a wealth of information to be teased out by the reader. The empirical format of each chapter does lead to redundancy, as there is great methodological and coding similarity, albeit not identical, for each chapter.

The first two sections of the book relating to definitions and national security were analyzed using a grounded-theory approach: Data collection, synthesis, and theory development were posited to have occurred simultaneously. GIPGAP approached the last sections, related to concepts of invasion and torture, using a deductive approach with Bandura’s theories of moral disengagement (Bandura, 1999) and human agency (Bandura, 2002) as primary elements of analysis. Theoretically, the research could have benefited from inclusion of the work and research related to moral exclusion (e.g., Opotow, 2001). Throughout the text, authors also draw on a range of additional theoretical perspectives to augment their analyses; for example, Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, terror management theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994), and social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).

In many ways, the International Handbook of War, Torture, and Terrorism is a reference book. It is difficult to imagine that this text could be easily integrated into an undergraduate or lower-level graduate class. However, the Handbook would be very useful in a research practicum course grounded in an extension of the work of GIPGAP or a seminar looking to examine the strengths and challenges of a global research project.

As a reference text, the Handbook serves two primary needs. The book is an excellent resource for policy makers who need to be aware of the beliefs, values, attitudes, and goals of individuals living in a particular region. Additionally, the text is a gold mine for anyone wanting to engage in research related to peace psychology, international relations, political science, anthropology, and other disciplines.

The work is extraordinary in its breadth and scope. Most readers will find themselves drawn into the research and envisioning potential new areas of study and research. It should also be noted that in addition to this text focusing on armed conflict concerns, there is a companion book based on the same research with a less violent focus— The International Handbook of Peace and Reconciliation (Malley-Morrison, Mercurio, & Twose, 2013).

The primary challenges of the Handbook are methodological in nature and are not surprising, given the breadth and global scope of the study. The most serious issue relates to the challenge of representative sampling. Most of the data collection for the PAIRTAPS was gathered via the Internet, with some limited use of paper-and-pencil surveys. Unfortunately, over 70 percent of the world’s population does not have Internet access, and some regions have extremely limited or prohibited Internet access (Internet World Stats, 2013). Indeed, one fifth of the world’s population doesn’t even have access to electricity (World Bank, 2013). As such, the population sampled may not reflect the cognitive and emotional perspectives of the broader population in each region.

Moreover, individuals with an interest in peace may have self-selected for greater participation. For example, one chapter noted the use of a convenience sample, with one third of the sample responding that they had “been involved in a protest against war and in favor of peace” at some point in their lives and 23 percent indicating that they had participated in a “conflict resolution or peace education program in a school or community setting” (p. 213). Additionally, within the Middle East sample, which included Israel, 48 percent of the participants identified as Muslim, 17 percent as Christian, and the remainder identified as agnostic or unspecified, with no participants identifying as Jewish (p. 404).

These data suggest problems with sampling, an issue noted by the Handbook’s editors. Additional problems include the self-report nature of these data, particularly in relation to socioeconomic status; inconsistent analysis between chapters (e.g., military service was included as a variable in some but not all chapters); some theoretical concerns (e.g., discussion of the Rwandan genocide as a historical example related to torture); lack of effect sizes for statistical analyses; and combining data from very different regions into a single category (e.g., Latin America or Africa).

Western historical and cultural traditions related to armed conflict, war, terrorism, and the role of government are often taken for granted and assumed to be universal. The cognitive and affective factors affecting our perceptions about whether we are justified in going to war, invading a country, or torturing the enemy are rooted in our historical traditions (Staub, 2010; Woolf & Hulsizer, 2005). Malley-Morrison and all of the GIPGAP scholars have provided a great service by expanding our understanding of these beliefs beyond generalities to specific concepts examined by region, religion, gender, economic status, military service, and a host of other factors.

For anyone working in the international arena, failure to think complexly about war, torture, terrorism, or national security leaves open the door to incomplete, ineffective, and, perhaps, counterproductive strategies designed to address armed conflict and work toward peace. This text is a fundamental “must have” for politicians, policy makers, peace psychologists and anyone working to address issues of armed conflict and mass violence around the globe.


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