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The words and concepts we use to discuss terrorism and counterterrorism—including the word "terrorism" itself—can have profound implications for how countries, populations and individuals behave, psychological researchers maintain.

In a paper in the December 2007 Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Vol. 8, No. 3), Arie Kruglanski, PhD, co-director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, and colleagues examined four metaphorical constructs that countries, organizations and academicians use to describe counterterrorist activities.

The war metaphor refers to a global "us against them" mentality, as in the "war on terror" concept launched by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. The metaphor implies that military action should be used against a clear enemy, and that only one side may win the conflict.

The law enforcement metaphor focuses on apprehending individual perpetrators and on punishing individual terrorist acts, rather than on demonizing an entire group. It is more likely than the war metaphor to balance both security needs and human rights concerns, they write.

Meanwhile, the epidemiology metaphor suggests that terrorism is an ideological disease that needs to be fought by winning over hearts and minds, while the prejudice-reduction metaphor acknowledges that the conditions that spawn terrorism involve a dynamic interplay between two parties. It's the only one of the metaphors that takes an explicitly bilateral view, and suggests that social psychological interventions such as creating positive contact between members of the conflicted groups could help to resolve their differences, the authors write.

Each of these metaphorical strategies has specific strengths, limitations and potential consequences, the authors argue. For instance, the use of military force suggested by the war metaphor could convey a country's resolve and determination, but at the same time fuel the outrage of the population targeted for military action, thus undermining the objective of winning their support in the fight. Meanwhile, negotiating with terrorists with the aim of countering their ideology may in some cases convey to terrorists that they have "won" their strategic objectives.

What's needed is a nuanced understanding and use of all of these concepts that takes into account the pluses and minuses of each—but governments are a long way from such a sophisticated approach, the authors note. One way to encourage this conversation is to expand communication between social science researchers and national security agencies, as START is now attempting to do, they say.

In another look at the power of words, Cambridge University social psychology graduate student Shahzad Shafqat is designing studies and a conceptual framework comparing the concepts of terrorism and extremism. While the two are often conflated, Shafqat believes extremism can be viewed as a broader concept that can encompass positive qualities and actions as well as negative ones. Consider people who risk their lives for a good cause, or Olympic athletes willing to take extreme physical measures to win, for example, he says.

In his dissertation, Shafqat took an empirical look at the issue by asking a sample of Cambridge students and a random sample of online browsers to describe how they felt about a man on a video who claimed to have joined an unnamed religious group and was about to embark on an unspecified task. Before watching the video, participants were primed with one of four stories describing the kind of religious group the man was entering, ranging from a peaceful monastery to a terrorist organization. He also asked participants to rate the perceived traits of the person.

The one variable that distinguished people's perception of dangerous extremists or terrorists from extremists who are not dangerous was a sense of threat, says Shafqat.

"When people feel a sense of threat in relation to someone's actions, only then do label that type of extremism as terrorism," he says.

Focusing on the broader concept of extremism may take some of punch out of the word "terrorist," which tends to be such a loaded term that it's difficult to study objectively, Shafqat adds. In his view, the only meaningful way to understand terrorism is to dissect the concept of extremism, which in turn could highlight the difference between positive and negative extremism and put terrorism into a broader and more comprehensible framework of human behavior, he says.

—T. DeAngelis