The Drum: The psychology behind the security laws

The Drum: The psychology behind the security laws


Psychological research provides insight into the “us versus them” mentality that appears to be guiding security laws going before Parliament this week. We should be taking a more inclusive approach, writes Brad Elphinstone.

The proposed counter-terrorism laws are the equivalent of battling obesity with liposuction rather than a good diet and exercise; a solution that creates the illusion of success without tackling the underlying causes.

Parliamentary Secretary Josh Frydenberg for example, said that the recent Islamic State video featuring 17-year-old Australian, Abdullah Elmir, indicates that stronger counter-terrorism laws are required.

These laws, which have the potential to be abused, include the ability for ASIO officers to access any computer network and/or impersonate citizens whilst receiving criminal and civil immunity, not to mention the potential imprisonment of journalists for disclosing such matters, and the retention of metadata.

These laws have the potential to erode civil liberties but only aim to increase domestic security post hoc, that is after a young Muslim youth has already been radicalised. We need better prevention as well as a cure. That requires an increase in social cohesion and a reduction in the “us versus them” mentality that increases the threat of domestic terrorism.

Psychological research has identified a typical mental shortcut that can lead to overly simplistic conclusions, the fundamental attribution error. This error occurs when people assume that the behaviour of others is due to internal dispositions rather than external factors.

People also have a tendency to view the world as comprising “in-groups” (i.e., “us”) and “out-groups” (i.e., “them”), where all members of an in-group or out-group are considered to be alike. In addition, “illusory correlations” – the assumption that one person’s behaviour is representative of all group members – tend to be applied to out-groups.

Thus, when Anders Breivik set off a bomb in a government building and gunned down dozens of teenagers, or when white American males massacre large numbers of people, the crime isn’t considered to be representative of “us” (e.g., all white people, or all Christians) but as the atrocious act of a crazed member of society.

When an attack is perpetrated by a Muslim (often perceived as an out-group member), such as the recent stabbing of two police officers in Melbourne or the recent running down of two police officers in Canada, it is assumed that the act was due to internal disposition as a Muslim (fundamental attribution error) rather than external factors (e.g., radicalisation after feeling alienated by covert and overt racism), that the perpetrator represents all Muslims (illusory correlation) and that all Muslims are a potential threat because they must all be like that (out-group homogeneity).

It is important to note that when crimes like these occur, it is often only those involving Muslims that are reported in the media as being acts of terror. Terrorism is thus synonymous with Islam; with “them”.

In order to minimise extremism we need to foster a sense of inclusiveness – that everyone is part of the Australian in-group. To do anything else simply stokes divisions and an us versus them mentality. This means that Muslims (as we have unfortunately seen in recent violent attacks on public transport) are more likely to be victims of racism, prejudice and discrimination from certain non-Muslim Australians. This may result in an extreme minority of Muslim Australians identifying with a perceived in-group (such as IS), seeking vengeance or retribution against those in a perceived homogenous out-group (i.e., non-Muslim Australians) who are considered to be a source of alienation and mistreatment.

There have been recent positive steps towards inclusiveness, such as Tony Abbott’s recent denunciation of the burqa ban for Parliament House and condemnation of violent attacks based on a person’s ethnicity or dress.

Such comments are, unfortunately, undermined by a focus on “Team Australia”, which implicitly infers an us versus them mentality. Another positive step has been the Greens’ recent suggestion for a national Centre for Social Cohesion that aims to foster interactions between people rather than highlighting in/out-group distinctions as are embedded in punitive policing measures.

Inclusiveness requires a bipartisan approach, but is not purely the domain of political action. One of the most effective means to decrease the distance between in and out-groups is to interact with people in perceived out-groups.

Each person, simply by taking an extra second to consider a woman in a niqab as a complex human being rather than as a stereotypical “Muslim”, takes a step towards breaking down barriers between groups. This is required to preserve and encourage the inclusiveness that is important in maintaining the strength and security of Australia’s multicultural society.

Brad Elphinstone is a PhD candidate in social psychology at Swinburne University of Technology and a Research Director at the Centre for Applied Political Psychology. View his full profile here.

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