Chapter 5: The False Consensus Effect and Terrorism

Throughout the entire duration of the hostage situation thus far we can pick up on the level of inequality between the hostages and their terrorist counterparts. In one of my earlier posts I discussed a key difference between the two groups with relation to their country status; here I discuss a more personal difference – their lifestyle background. And through the practice of Slow Research I seek a better understanding of this inequality while reflecting on my own experiences.

In Chapter Five specifically, General Alfredo becomes irritated with his hostages. He feels they are “like terrible children, always wanting more for themselves. They [know] nothing of what it mean[s] to suffer.” Although everyone experiences some degree of disappointment at one point or another in his/her life, this may very well be the case; it’s quite likely that General Alfredo and his men have suffered far more than the higher-class political officers and corporate businessmen have (in terms of basic needs, that is). As I thought longer about this I kept asking myself, “so what?” The answer, as it turns out, explains more than just the terrorists’ behavior.

John Alderdice writes in his article on Sacred Values of the psychology behind terrorism and what motivates a terrorist to take physical action. Contrary to the common belief that all terrorists are inherently “evil” with intentions to perform actions of violence for its own sake, most terrorists actually grow up “in communities where the tradition of using physical force to address political problems had been maintained for generations” [1]. Well, this makes enough sense to me – we are all the product of how we are raised. But what gives us the right to impose these beliefs on others?

As it turns out, a psychological cognitive bias explains this very phenomenon! As Robyn Dawes writes in Chapter Eight of his book Insights in Decision Making: A Tribute to Hillel Einhorn, the false-consensus is “an egotistic bias to believe that others… will respond like oneself…” [2]. Put more simply in other words, one can subconsciously extend his/her own core values and beliefs onto others without conscious awareness. So, if the terrorists of Bel Canto feel a particular way about an issue, they automatically assume the hostages and affected government will feel the same way (and in turn quite willingly give in to their list of demands). As we the audience come to learn, however, this certainly is not the case.

I’m actually able to relate to this theory on a personal level; my father is of the firm belief that in order to be successful in life you must struggle to some degree. He often tells me about growing up as a boy in the Bronx of New York and how very few things were “handed to him.” As his family didn’t own a car for quite some time he insists I ride my bike whenever I’m home instead of borrowing a car or considering alternative solutions. He believes the tiny struggles he had to overcome growing up were necessary in helping him become the successful person he is today. This is a fine opinion to have, however extending it onto your family members on this basis may be a bit of a fallacy.

Why do humans possess this natural drive to extend their values onto others to the point of taking a group of contrasting others hostage? My research brought me to the work of Psychologist Sigmund Freud of the twentieth century. More specifically, I stumbled upon the third of his six proposed defense mechanisms: Projection, or the environment where individuals attribute “their own unacceptable thoughts, feeling and motives to another person” [3]. Freud proposed ones values are instilled within them during the childhood stages and last within them well until old age. Through this perspective – and the earlier portions of my research – I can develop a theory: terrorists rarely truly act on the premise that they’ll bring about some immediate physical change (get what they want), but instead desire simply to extend their own beliefs onto others.

This theory explains the actions of the terrorists in Bel Canto perfectly. Although they do manage to come up with lists of demands (some items of which can be considered silly), the acquisition of what they list is not what the group intends. Instead, the terrorists meant to kidnap the President and instill within the party-goers some shared core values/beliefs.

In conclusion, the terrorists can contrast their hostages not only through socioeconomic differences but also through personal background histories. Through the process of Slow Research I’ve devised a theory that explains the terrorists behavior, motive, and belief. Perhaps in a later post I’ll be able to put my theory to the test.

Works Cited

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04510.x/full

[2] https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XFQo9ct_vR4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA179&dq=false-consensus+effect&ots=_mT7ecqcIK&sig=49rTLGquAQ3k_XEN9rDFLr_GNws#v=onepage&q=false-consensus%20effect&f=false

[3] http://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html

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One thought on “Chapter 5: The False Consensus Effect and Terrorism

  1. dgromels says:

    Hey Colin! I wish you had more time in class to talk about your research because I feel like it is a little difficult to understand in a brief summary, but reading your post really cleared your topic up for me. I had similar feelings of frustration with General Alfredo, and your post has made me think about him in a different manner. I can now see why he might have this urge for other people to have experiences that are just as difficult as his have been. You didn’t explicitly say it, but I think your initial research question was “Why do people feel the need to impose their beliefs and experiences on others when clearly everyone has a different background?”

    Though this isn’t totally related, your post reminded me of a theory we learned about in my Philosophy of Law class that you might want to look into called the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment, which is attributed to the liberal philosopher John Rawls. He proposes that the only way for a society to be both just and fair is for the people who decide the rules of distributive and retributive justice to reside behind a “veil of ignorance,” without any knowledge of what status they will have in the society. Therefore, a reasonable person would construct society in such as way that it is the most accommodating for those in the worst position. This eliminates one of the largest issues we see with our political system; the people who make the decisions either because they are elected officials or because they have funded an official’s campaign are generally wealthy and make decisions based off of their own interests. This relates to your research because the “veil of ignorance” prevents the problems that arise when people impose their views on others; too bad it’s just an impossible theory.

    I was also really interested by your reference to Freud’s defense mechanism of projection because we are studying it in my Approaches to Literature class. For Freud, projection is subconscious and stems from incestuous desires contained in the id, and I don’t feel like it relates as much to the terrorists as your other research. It seems a bit problematic to take Freud’s theory out of context and apply it to the hostages in this case, but I can see where you are coming from and I am sure you could defend your theory if given the chance. If you choose to continue with this topic, I would see if you could find theories of projection from other psychologists, especially from a political perspective since the hostage crisis is an act of political dissent.

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