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Terror in Westminster

24th Mar 2017

The BIT London office is just off Parliament Square, so Wednesday’s tragic events were truly on our doorstep. Thank you for the many concerned emails that we have received from colleagues across the world, though much more important are the condolences and thoughts for those hurt or killed, and for their relatives.

It seems that periodic acts of terror are part of our lives. Like many in Britain, I grew up with the background of the IRA and a well-drilled suspicion of abandoned packages or unusual parcels in the post. I was based in No 10 during 9/11, and still have ‘flashbulb’ memories of that event and of the security changes in the weeks afterwards that are still with us to this day. On the morning of the 7/7 attacks in 2005, I was lucky to take a later train into Kings’ Cross than usual and was confronted with a sobbing stream of people as they flooded out from the underground that I was supposed to have been on.

Against this background, perhaps it’s not surprising that London and the Westminster community – from the Prime Minister to the public on the street – responded to yesterday’s attack with a quiet and measured resolve. There was an eerie quiet cycling past the great Departments of State on Wednesday evening, and Thursday. The streets clear of cars, the quiet instead broken only by the chatter of a helicopter overhead. People gave nods and comments of appreciation to the police manning the cordoned-off streets or paused to gaze towards Westminster Bridge. Mark Rowley, the national lead for Counter Terrorism Policing, seemed to capture the mood in his statement that ‘this is a day that we had planned for [but] that we all hoped would never happen.’

For people in government, and in the community, attention will now shift to how we respond, and – if at all possible – prevent such attacks.

As in previous attacks or natural disasters, it matters how fellow citizens react. As if thrown into one of Latane and Darley’s famous smoked filled room experiments, we look to each other for clues as to how we should interpret what has happened, and how we should respond. Should we run, fearful and afraid? Should we be angry and vengeful? As those famous experiments showed, our own reactions are strongly affected by the actions (and indeed numbers) of others. Studies after 9/11 show that people really did reach out and connect with others. Analysis of diaries, comparing before and after the event, showed marked increases in words such as ‘talk’, ‘share’ and ‘friends’, with massive increases in entries referencing wider social connections to city, state and nation (Cohn, Mehl & Pennebaker, 2004).  The changes showed in behaviour too, such as in a marked surge in volunteering.

Our reactions to such events are also, at least to some extent, shaped by the questions we ask of them. While we hope an attack will never be subject to a randomised controlled trial, what influences reactions to them has been. Small, Lerner and Fischhoff (2006) asked people to write down their thoughts and feelings about a terrorist attack, but with subjects asked slightly different ‘priming’ questions. Among subjects who were primed about sadness, only a minority of around one in three dwelt on causes. But among those primed about anger – ‘What aspect of the terrorist attacks makes you the most angry?’ – a clear majority of around three in four dwelt on causes. It is an open question about whether it is better to dwell on – and become angry – about the causes of an attack or to reflect and feel empathy to those caught up within it. But what is clear is that the questions we, and our leaders, ask affect how we think about what happened.

Thinking about prevention, or more realistically the reduction of risk and hatred is something that we can do. The Government’s PREVENT program, itself born of previous attacks, has inevitably come up for discussion. Have we learnt anything in recent years to give us hope that something can be done? I think so. Here are three examples of behavioural science research that seem promising.

First, the work of Professor Tania Singer suggests that empathy in others different to ourselves can be fostered. Importantly, the techniques that do this are different to those that stimulate other ‘non-cognitive’ or life skills such as determination and grit. In upcoming work, Singer found that getting subjects to spend a few minutes listening to someone talk about a hobby or subject that they were passionate about, with a different person each day over two weeks, substantially increased empathy. Even if you don’t care much about fishing or astronomy, getting a sense that other people are passionate about such things makes you feel more empathetic and forgiving towards your fellow humans.

Second, a recent study by BIT found that young people in the National Citizen Service became more trusting after doing an ice-breaker which had them talk to each other about their similarities. Importantly, this increase in social trust was particularly concentrated among those young people with the lowest levels of trust in others. 

Third, there are promising results suggesting that it is possible to intervene on the mental rigidity that forms the foundation of extremist thinking. Such rigidity includes: seeing the world in a ‘black and white’ manner; selective use of ‘evidence’ to reinforce a prior position (of course we all do this a bit, but here we see it in a much more extreme way); and an insensitivity to the truth behind claims, or in other words, an insensitivity to the robustness of the method from which a claim was derived. In everyday parlance, just ‘cos your best mate said something, doesn’t make it true. In a superb forthcoming study, Sir Iain Chalmers et al tested a series of interventions with 15,000 children, their parents and teachers to see if it was possible, as Iain puts it, to make them ‘better bullshit detectors’. The results are due to be published in a major journal shortly, but let me just say that the results are really impressive and encouraging…

It is deeply sad that acts of terror have beset so many countries. Ironically it is the rarity of such acts, combined with their intentionality and visibility, which irresistibly captures our attention and imagination. Such attacks have even been shown to affect the subjective well-being of whole nations (Frey et al, 2009). But perhaps we can at least shape their legacy. We can choose to see the similarities in those around us. We can choose to nurture in ourselves, our children, and each other an appreciation of our differences. And it looks like we can even make people better ‘bullshit detectors’ – a goal worth pursuing for so many reasons, but including that it might undermine the mental blindness that makes extremism possible.