Monday, January 5, 2015

Zimbardo & Boyd’s time-centric analysis of terrorist mindsets: a critique based on STA (4th of 4 posts)

This fourth and final post about Zimbardo & Boyd’s book The Time Paradox focuses on their analysis of terrorist mindsets. After summarizing their time-perspective approach and noting some of its shortcomings, I reiterate my proposition that space and action orientations should be taken into account as well, separately, along with time. Indeed, spatial perspectives may be as key as temporal ones — possibly more so — in determining who becomes a terrorist.

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Zimbardo & Boyd’s analysis of terrorists mindsets: identifying and applying the transcendental-future time perspective

Zimbardo & Boyd’s chapter about the transcendental-future time perspective is where they turn to analyze the psychology of terrorists, primarily suicide bombers.

The chapter starts with a small vignette about young man, somewhere in an Arab society, who is surrounded by close friends and a proud father before he goes out to blow himself up, along with his target (162). In asking why someone becomes a suicide bomber (or other kind of terrorist), Zimbardo & Boyd propose that it’s because he/she values having a transcendental-time orientation.

But before touting that explanation, they discount what they deem common explanations for terrorist behavior (actually, experts already discounted them long ago): Abnormal-psychology explanations that view suicide bombers as crazy or mentally ill don’t work because most are normal, come from intact families, and are educated and married (163+). Brainwashing explanations that blame religious cult leaders are unverifiable as well (165). Rational-strategy explanations — achieving the most “bang for the buck” — may make some sense, but run counter to the value that most people place on human life (170). Religious explanations lack credence too; for many suicide bombers are not religious fanatics, and act mainly because of secular grievances.

The hopelessness that attends the “unbearable present” — a kind of time perspective — offers a better explanation, according to Zimbardo & Boyd:
“A third common explanation for suicide bombers is that they have lost hope and therefore feel they have nothing to lose in taking their own lives. We would describe such individuals as being high in present fatalism, low in future, and low in present hedonism time perspectives. They do not enjoy the present; they do not look forward to the future; and they do not believe their acts can have any effect upon the future. Having a past-negative time perspective — which is strongly associated with anger, perceived victimization, and aggression — they may be likely to escape their unpleasant present through violent means.” (167)
Thus Zimbardo & Boyd agree that hopelessness explanations have merit, especially if a suicide bomber feels victimized. But they also find that many bombers are not thoroughly hopeless or despairing people:
“Suicide bombers are typically normal, healthy, upstanding members of the communities from which they originate. They are not poor, disenfranchised, or crazy — at least no more so than everyone else in their communities … ” (168)
Against this background, Zimbardo & Boyd opt to modify their time-perspective explanation so that it applies better to suicide bombers (170). What the authors notice is that many bombers feel motivated by a religious belief in a future that transcends earthly life (169). But that far-out kind of future perspective wasn’t in their original past-present-future typology — instead, it held that individuals predisposed to commit suicide bombings would have time perspectives that were high in past-negative, low in past-positive, high in present-fatalistic, low in present hedonistic, and low in future-time (171, my underlining). That profile, though it seemed on the right track, didn’t capture the notion of a transcendental future, especially one that meant having sense of responsibility to God in a religious sense or to future generations in a secular sense.

So, sure that time-perspective analysis could explain suicide bombings and other sacrificial terrorist acts (170), Zimbardo & Boyd turned to “test whether beliefs about the goals, rewards, and punishments that await us after we die foster a unique time perspective”. To do so, they “added questions to the ZTPI that suppose a life after death” (172) — resulting in a new scale, the Transcendental-Future Time Perspective Inventory (TFTPI).

In general, they found that different religious believers scored differently on this new scale: Christians and Muslims tended to endorse the transcendental-future perspective the most (173). Moreover, Protestants tended to be the most extreme (whether high or low) on every time perspective; Catholics’ the most moderate; and Buddhists the most unique (174).

Moreover, groups that felt oppressed scored highest on the transcendental-future scale (179). Indeed, “a firm belief in the transcendental future may make present inequities less painful to endure and rebellion less imperative” (180). The new scale also clarified that transcendental-future beliefs are sometimes related less to religion or life after death, than to secular concern for generations far into the future, the sustainability movement being their example (181).

More significant for this blog post, Zimbardo & Boyd’s big finding is that the transcendental-future time perspective helps explain why some people become terrorists. For this perspective generates “an abundant hope” that becomes “the secret ingredient” in terrorist mindsets:
“Seen from a transcendental-future perspective, a suicide bomber’s act is not crazy, fanatical, hate-filled, or hopeless, but an act committed by a religious person who may have had little hope for his future in this life but has abundant hope in the transcendental future.” (178)
“Time perspective helps us to unify these disparate explanations conceptually, and it also adds the explicative power of the transcendental future. The transcendental-future time perspective is the "secret" ingredient. In the end, suicide bombers are fighting for time.” (178)
Expanding on the point that “suicide bombers are fighting for time,” Zimbardo & Boyd argue that the entire war on terrorism is a war of time perspectives (reflecting Jeremy Rifkin’s 1987 notion of “time wars”?). If our opponents in this war were “ordinary people”, then destroying their mundane future expectations would diminish their motivations (183). But the terrorists waging this war are not so ordinary — for them, the transcendental future has become more important and more achievable than the mundane future:
“We now face an enemy whose visions of the mundane future lie smoldering in the ruins of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This enemy’s remaining hopes lie squarely in the transcendental future. ... Fighting an adversary with strong transcendental-future goals by destroying it's mundane goals ensures that transcendental-future goals alone are obtainable. We will win the war on terror not by destroying our enemies future but by nurturing it. The motivational power of the mundane future must be restored if mundane future goals are to compete with transcendental-future goals.” (183+)
On this basis, the authors propose that U.S. policy and strategy focus on changing people’s time perspectives. Accordingly, U.S. policy should work to restore “the motivational power of mundane future goals” in societies riven by terrorism, in order to keep “the transcendental future from being the lone oasis in an otherwise desiccated life” (184). In a sense, then, the “war on terror” is a war about whose time perspective wins:
“The war on terror is a battle between the United States government's vision of the mundane future and the vision of the transcendental future held by those who are its enemies.” (184)
Therefore, they call for U.S. plans and programs to develop societies in ways that can “reset” a people’s sense of time, enabling them to adopt a practical, less fatalistic view of the future:
“We can reset this clock. Doing so requires replacing past-negative and present-fatalistic time perspectives with past-positive and present-hedonistic ones.” (185)
To accomplish this, Zimbardo & Boyd urge that U.S. policies and programs be designed around three steps to help “reset” a people’s time perspectives: The first  is to provide “resources and opportunities” to people who lack them. The second is to instill a sense of  responsibility and initiative in people — “Fatal passivity must be replaced by an “I can do it” stance.” (185) Their third step emphasizes “moderating transcendental-future time perspectives and supplementing them with more practical future time perspectives.” Accordingly, “People must believe that their actions today will lead to predictable and desirable rewards in the future.” (185)

Zimbardo & Boyd are not opposed to people having a transcendental-future perspective. Like other time perspectives, it too may have both positive and negative effects. The authors just want to see moderation and balance, favoring good effects, so that “transcendental-future goals encourage civil behavior out of concern for the living and for generations into the future” (186).

Toward doing better at explaining terrorist mindsets — comments from an STA perspective

Despite my criticisms, I am pleased to see a popular book offer an extended discussion of people’s time perspectives, especially in regard to explaining terrorist mindsets. This study is on the right track, more so than are writings that use grand abstract concepts, like humiliation or alienation, bundling all sorts of space, time, and action orientations together, without the writer ever dissecting them. Furthermore, I can imagine that a briefing based on Zimbardo & Boyd’s approach would captivate some policy analysts and strategists in Washington, helping them to understand the importance of time perspectives.

Even so, this book provides an incomplete and insufficient way to analyze terrorist mindsets. It is insufficient, first of all, because it so dependent on a past-present-futures typology that does not include other important dynamics of people’s time perspectives (see Appendix). It is also deficient because, in emphasizing time above all, it takes little account of the influence of people’s space and action perspectives. In other words, I’m back to my critical refrain, as laid out in my three prior posts about this book.

Here are some insufficiencies I spotted while reading this chapter on the transcendental-future time perspective with STA in mind:

• Zimbardo & Boyd’s thesis is that suicide bombers (and other terrorists) have transcendental-future time perspectives, and that this helps explain why they become terrorists. But there’s an analytic problem that they recognize but don’t resolve: Whereas many terrorists may have transcendental-future perspectives, few people at large who have such perspectives turn out to be terrorists. So their thesis offers an interesting but insufficient explanation. Which raises questions as to what else needs to be identified for their thesis to hold up well: Something else about people’s time perspectives? Or about their space and/or action perspectives? My view, of course, is that STA could provide a better, more comprehensive explanation.

• The opening vignette about a suicide bomber surrounded by family and friends in his village seems more about his spatial connections than his temporal perspectives. Besides, I doubt it’s a very representative vignette. Evidently, few suicide bombers leave on a mission that way; many more set out after being secluded with and monitored by fellow fighters, perhaps far from family approval. The spatial setting may be as significant as the temporal.

• To reiterate a point in my Part-3 post, it’s unclear whether the vignette’s suicide bomber is driven more by a transcendental-future or an ascendant deep-past perspective. Many terrorist bombers may have a transcendental-future perspective, as Zimbardo & Boyd propose. But I gather that many are also motivated by ages-old tribal traditions that obligate vengeance and retribution, as may be the case with many Taliban soldiers.

• Much as I appreciate Zimbardo & Boyd’s (and earlier, Rifkin’s) point that the United States is engaged in a kind of time war against terrorism, the point should not be overstated. For this war is also very much about space and agency — indeed, the full space-time-action complex. For example, the time-war point applies rather similarly to both ISIL and Al Qaeda. Yet these two entities have very different spatial outlooks: Al Qaeda has urged attacking the “far enemy” and hasn’t tried to hold territory. In contrast, ISIL has gone after near enemies and worked to hold territory and build a caliphate. Moreover, ISIL’s action orientation is even more savage than Al Qaeda’s.

• The three steps that Zimbardo & Boyd specify as policy implications are quite conventional, for these very kinds of goals regularly appear in statements about U.S. policies and programs for the developing countries. Just a few days ago, for example, I heard a U.S. diplomat say that a purpose of President Obama’s opening toward Cuba is to “encourage Cubans to take control of their own destiny” — clearly, an intention to alter time and agency perspectives among Cubans. What’s missing from the three steps in Zimbardo & Boyd’s brief formulation is how, if enacted, they would result in our doing things much differently.

• Zimbardo & Boyd’s analysis of terrorists’ time perspectives repeats a pattern I mentioned in my prior posts about other parts of their book: They embed people’s action (efficacy, control) perspectives under their time perspectives, though they are fundamentally different kinds of cognition. This embedding appears in this chapter when the authors observe that suicide bombers in the grip of a transcendental-future orientation feel little control over their lives — “they do not believe their acts can have any effect upon the future” (167). It re-appears when the authors claim, in discussing U.S. policy implications, that “Fatal passivity must be replaced by an “I can do it” stance” (185), and that “People must believe that their actions today will lead to predictable and desirable rewards in the future.” (185). As I’ve said many times, this suborning of action to time makes for a flawed approach to mindset analysis.

My overall disposition toward these matters is still summed up pretty well in the following comment I left at a Zenpundit blog post years ago:
“Of the three cognitive domains — space, time, and action — the one that often receives the most attention in terrorism analyses I’ve seen is action, notably the belief in violence. Time orientations — as in an apocalyptic intentions — are often second in emphasis. Spatial orientations generally receive the least explicit attention. But my reading of points made by analysts, as well as by terrorists and by people who live in locales that produce terrorists, indicates that spatial disorientations, antipathies, and ambitions figure as strongly and distinctly in terrorist minds as do time and action. It is not simply a loss of hope (a time orientation) that accounts for despair and the turn to terrorism, but more a loss of connection to one’s identity, to one’s people, and to what one values in the surrounding space. The loss of temporal hope derives from the loss of spatial connection.
“In particular — and this is my theme — terrorists come to acquire a very enlarged sense of social space; and within it, they become keenly resentful about the boundaries and barriers that constrain their own and other people’s lives. They become intent on bursting beyond those boundaries and barriers, and they want none placed on their use of violence. Hiding underground and then exploding outward is, for terrorists, an epitomizing, spatial act. A key aim is to accomplish a vast reconnection among like-minded brethren, while disconnecting the rest of us — in other words, it’s a spatial war as much or more than a temporal war.” (source)
Nonetheless, as I wrote here later, extra care must be taken in analyzing the mindsets of millenarian terrorists — the kind who have transcendental-future perspectives — for their space, time, and action dispositions may be quite different:
“If/when I get around to viewing millenarian terrorists from an STA perspective again, care must be taken in claiming that their spatial orientations may be more significant than their time orientations. After all, millenarianism is about breaching into a new future. But while the millenarian mindset is knotted up with urgent notions about time (the “end times”), it is also about space (e.g., barriers everywhere) and action (e.g., violent deeds to achieve divine breakthroughs). What’s crucial to millenarians is apocalyptic “time war” (term from Rifkin, 1987), more than a spatial “clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1993).” (source)
In other words, there is still much to be figured out. And on that note, I shall end this four-part book review about time perspectives and move onward to a book about STA’s action component, namely Alberto Bandura’s Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997).


Endnote — Here is a list of other posts at this blog, plus a comment elsewhere, that offer more extensive discussions about the space-time-action orientations of terrorists:

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Appendix: Some old notes about terrorists’ space-time-action orientations

Before I leave this post, perhaps the point should be reiterated that people’s time perspectives involve a lot more than can be captured by a past-present-future typology: e.g., regarding the kinds of pacing, rhythm, linearity, etc., that people may prefer. I’ve not written much about this in prior posts. So, to offer some clarification, I’m pasting into this Appendix some sketchy notes from a 2007 draft I started about the STA orientations of terrorists. I didn’t get far at the time, but some of my notes may help address the above point (even though these notes are far from being good enough for a stand-alone blog post).

Here are the notes about aspects of terrorists’ time orientations. While I figured that time perspectives may vary greatly from one terrorist to the next, some key patterns may occur frequently, for they seemed to be inherent or implicit in the process of behaving as a terrorist:
• The time orientation often seems explosive. Terrorism emphasizes especially violent, threatening deeds that capture enormous public attention and that are relatively short duration. The events may assume epic, even apocalyptic proportions, whose imagery symbolizes the urgency to destroy all that is wrong with the present order, as well as to create a new future. The terrorist’s emphasis on such explosive deeds seems to imply a different time perspective from the standard revolutionary’s preferences for protracted mass struggle. Time is measured more in terms of dramatic events than of continuous social processes.
• The terrorist incident often creates a tremendous, high-speed compression and acceleration of time, both for the perpetrators and for the system at large. That may be part of the inherent gratification for the terrorists, giving them a sense of speeding the system to its own self-destruction by infusing it with an explosive fuel that seeps into all cracks.
• Their objectives often seem to entail bringing the “system’s” time to a sudden halt in the present, while simultaneously accelerating future change. Apart from such symbolism, the dramas are often designed so as to involve acute, fast-paced schedules that require attention and put pressure on the victims and authorities. (But the passage of time during the unfolding of an incident may have a schizophrenic or dualistic quality, in that looming deadlines may be mixed with periods of slow waiting that tries patience.)
• Where a campaign of terrorism is involved, the time experience may oscillate between slower dormant periods (underground, preparing and planning in secret, and possibly brooding) and fast-paced explosive moments (when the deed goes public, above ground, in a highly expressive climax). Thus time may seem to pulsate more than to flow, and to move more like a spiral than a linear progression. The time experience would seem to seek discontinuity rather than continuity.
• The pause between deeds may partly represent a down-time for the terrorists. But it may also represent a playing-out of the waves created by the prior deed. In strategic terrorism, the incidents are often intended to create waves whose duration and impact need to be examined by laying back awhile. Thus the will to create new events, even rush to create them as soon as possible, may have to be balanced against the interest to assess the waves from the preceding event, the better to plan the timing for the next effort.
A smaller set of those old 2007 notes began to sketch what may be distinctive about terrorists’ space orientations:
• Terrorists have spatial horizons that, probably sometime early in their personal development, were expanded enormously, even overwhelmingly.
• At some point, they also began to feel that their lives were uprooted, rootless, and/or displaced, subject to a world of giant, distant, uncaring forces.
• People who become terrorists acquire a great sensitivity to the social barriers and boundaries affecting their lives.
• They simplify space by coming to perceive it in terms of black-and-white, Manichean polarities.
• They are amenable, even prone, to going underground to hide, in a kind of compression, and then emerging to run amok, exploding into the world at large.
• They think change can be achieved — a system brought down — by striking at critical points and weak links.
• For some terrorists, especially one with a megalomaniacal mindset, a key aim and reward is the narcissistic permeation of the world with his identity.

Evidently I stopped working on this old draft before making comparable notes about terrorists’ action orientations — perhaps all the more reason now to put this Appendix aside and turn to work on Bandura’s book, as indicated earlier.