This article is part of a series seeking to identify the impacts of the current and most probably forthcoming terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, and focuses on major socio-psychological consequences. It follows a first article, which started outlining a framework for impact assessment out of our current understanding of the economic consequences of terrorism, which notably pointed out the need to use mapping as methodology if the complex and cascading characters of these impacts are to be properly assessed. The larger aim of the series is notably to understand if businesses should or not neglect these aggressions and related geopolitical uncertainties, while finding out ways to foresee these risks so as to best design answers (see Helene Lavoix, “Businesses and Geopolitics: Caught up in the Whirlwinds? (1)”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 17 Oct 2016)

To find out which could be the psychological impacts of the ongoing string of terrorist attacks, we shall use articles related to 9/11 as well as studies following the second Intifada, which took place in Israel from the end of September 2000 until the beginning of 2005 and was waged by “Palestinian terrorism on Israeli society” (Dov Waxman, “Living with terror, not Living in Terror: The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society“, Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol 5, No 5-6 (2011). Each case will bring insights in what we could expect in terms of current and future socio-psychological impacts, although differences with the contemporary and forthcoming Islamic State’s and jihadist attacks should not be understated. Notably, 9/11 was a huge shock and a very large and spectacular multiple attack, but happened only once and only to one country. The Second Intifada, although targeting too a single country, taking place on a much smaller territory and aiming at a smaller population, compared with the current and probably near-future situation, should give us an insight into the consequences of attacks repeatedly waged over time and carried out in very various ways when, as outlined by Waxman, “once innocuous items (drinks, shoes, backpacks) can become the means of deadly attacks”.

Read also:

We shall first explain the disconnection existing between direct exposure to the attack, objective threat and socio-psychological impacts, i.e. how people are impacted psychologically even though they are not in the immediate vicinity of the attack and how this phenomenon takes place. This will allow us better envisioning who can be impacted. We shall then turn to the more individual harmful psychological consequences of terror attacks, from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to depression and insomnia and their impacts on businesses through impaired professional life. This will notably allow us pointing out that a crucial stakeholder for the corporate sector in terms of considering the Islamic State’s and Jihadist terrorist attacks and thus related geopolitical uncertainties is the department of human resources, which must thus be primarily involved, besides other more obvious departments such as security, risks, or sales, marketing, operations and finance. Staff in charge of exports and supplies must also become involved as the companies with whom they are dealing could be impacted by terrorist attacks. Finally, we shall turn to socio-psychological consequences with collective impacts, which have various effects on companies and de facto societies and countries, from avoidance (not doing something anymore, e.g. flying, traveling by train, visiting some countries, investing in some sectors and countries, etc.) to the rise of collectively aggressive behaviour.

Disconnection between exposure, objective threat and socio-psychological impacts

The first crucial element to consider if one is to understand and take into account properly the socio-psychological impacts of terrorist attacks is the disconnection existing between personal direct exposure, objective threat and happenstance of effects.

This disconnection has been observed again and again according to research. Silver, Holman, et al. show, in the context of the consequences of 9/11, that “the psychological effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those who experience it directly, and the degree of response is not predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma” (“Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11“. JAMA. 2002;288(10)). This was confirmed by Bleich, Gelkopf and Solomon, in the framework of the second Intifada, as they found “no association between symptom criteria for PTSD,…  number or intensity of TSR symptoms or any of the other indicators of distress”, and level of exposure to terrorist attacks (“Exposure to Terrorism, Stress-Related Mental Health Symptoms, and Coping Behaviors Among a Nationally Representative Sample in Israel“, JAMA. 2003;290(5): 619). Gigerenzer, similarly, in his study on dread risk and avoidance (see below) notably after 9/11, show that more people chose to drive rather than fly after the attack, even though those people had not been directly exposed (“Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire: Behavioral Reactions to Terrorist Attacks“, Risk Analysis,  Vol. 26, No. 2, 2006).

Furthermore, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) found “no significant association … between objective threat (high vs low residency risk, urban vs nonurban, Jewish vs Arab Israeli), exposure and future orientation, or sense of personal safety,” apart from association that could be found only in the case of fear for friends and family. The only demographic indicator that could be identified as having an effect on the happenstance of psychological symptoms was that women were more susceptible (5.5 times more likely for Israeli women) to develop PTSD and TSR symptoms and to experience feelings of depression (Ibid.), which, of course, does not imply that men do not develop these symptoms. This means also that neither the level of education nor age, nor social class etc. have an effect on the development of psycho-social impacts after a terrorist attacks, but, on the contrary that everyone is affected.

The explanation that is most often given for these disconnections is first that people are actually exposed to the attacks through media coverage (e.g. Vaxman; Daniel Antonius, “When fear is a weapon: how terror attacks influence mental health“, The Conversation, 5 Dec 2015, updated March 23, 2016;  Schlenger et al., “Psychological reactions to terrorist attacks: findings from the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11.“, JAMA. 2002 Aug 7;288(5):581-8); for a review up to 2007, Marshall et al. “The psychology of ongoing threat: relative risk appraisal, the September 11 attacks, and terrorism-related fears“, Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun;62(4). This does not mean that media should not provide coverage of the attacks, on the contrary, or, to anticipate on what is explained below, the factor of “unknowability” which mediates our distorted appraisal of risk would be heightened.

As far as the current Islamic State’s and other jihadist attacks are concerned, the rising spread not only of media access and exposure but also of direct access to witnesses’ videos, pictures and accounts through social networks, from Twitter to Facebook, through Instagram and YouTube may only heighten this characteristics of the socio-psychological effects of terrorist attacks.

Once people are exposed to attacks through media, individuals would interpret the information received through what Marshall et al. (ibid.) suggest to call “relative risk appraisal”,  a “multidimensional process that mediates the relation between environmental events and the individual’s meaningful appraisal of them.” Interestingly, we may note that individuals, when they evaluate the terrorist risk they face (ibid.) are prey to exactly the same biases as analysts trying to foresee future events (see online course, module 2).

As explained by Marshall et al. (Ibid.), this appraisal process is notably influenced by three elements, as identified by Slovic (“Perception of Risk”, Science, 1987 Apr 17;  236(4799), and Slovic P, MacGregor D, Kraus NN, “Perception of risk from automobile safety defects”, Accid Anal Prev. 1987 Oct; 19(5)). First, we have the “catastrophic, uncontrollable, and inequitable” aspect of danger, called “dread risk”. Second we have the unknowable character of the hazard, notably in terms of timing (when waiting for a plane, at a cafe, in a restaurant, when shopping, when commuting, any time and any place actually), and specificities (a suicide bomber, a knife stabbing, a lorry ramming a crowd, etc.). Finally, these characteristics must have “signal potential”, i.e. they must be interpreted as a warning of an existing danger, “which has entered the environment” (Slovic et al., 1987, ibid.).

As far as the Islamic State and other jihadist attacks are concerned, we definitely find the characteristics of uncontrollable as well as inequitable dangers, while the catastrophic element is sometimes present in terms of scope, as with the Bataclan, Stade de France and restaurants attacks in November 2015 in Paris, and often emphasised in repeated signal potentials, such as, for example, references to nuclear risk in Belgium (Debra Decker, “ISIL’s next Belgian target could be a nuclear plant“, USA Today, 24 March 2016), or regular mention of the potential use of Weapons of Massive Destructions (WMD) by the Islamic State (e.g. Associated Press, “Chemical weapons found in Mosul in Isis lab, say Iraqi forces“, The Guardian, 29 Jan 2017;  Rob Merrick, “Isis wants to carry out a chemical weapons attack in Britain, the national security minister warns“, The Independent, 1 Jan 2017).

Similarly the wide variety of modus operandi for the attacks, the inherent element of surprise found in terrorist attacks, added to the stress put by politicians, governments’ and states’ officials on the impossibility of zero risk, show that Slovic second factor is also present in the current string of attacks. Furthermore, the rising suspicion against the ruling establishment (as evidenced by President Trump election in the U.S., or shown by the degrading OECD index of “trust in government, with only 40% citizens continuing to trust their government in 2016), the willingness of governments and media to sometimes hide the terrorist character of attacks by initially favouring explanations in terms of psychiatric unbalance (e.g. Mark Mazzetti and Erik Schmitt, “In the Age of ISIS, Who’s a Terrorist, and Who’s Simply Deranged?“, The New York Times, 17 July 2016) may only heighten the feeling of “unknowability” of the population, while the signal potential has not been lowered. Finally, the signal potential may only remain as long as the Islamic State’s and Jihadist threat exist.

As a result, we may expect the disconnect to take place currently and in the near future, potentially leading to an even more distorted relative risk appraisal compared with previous episodes of attacks, considering current specificities.

The disconnection and the way it is taking place through relative risk appraisal process not only allows for the occurrence of pathological symptoms within individuals, but also favours harmful behaviour at collective or aggregate level (Marshall et al., ibid.). It is first to these different pathological symptoms in individuals  we shall now turn.

Harmful individual socio-psychological impacts: from PTSD to lower work quality and burnout

Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Stress-Related Symptoms

Without entering into the clinical details, best left to Medical Doctors, these disorders are now gathered in a single category, “Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders“, and are the most painful and incapacitating range of symptoms that an individual may experience after a terrorist attack.

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) usually appears immediately after the trauma and may last from 3 days to 1 months, while the others last for more than a month (MSD Manual).

A precise model of estimation would be necessary here, but without it, we can at least obtain a rough estimate of the number of people who are potentially concerned by these disorders out of previous instances. In the case of the second Intifada, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) report that 76.7% people suffered from at least one Traumatic Stress- Related (TSR) symptom, 9.4% suffered of PTSD and 1 person from ASD.

In the case of 9/11, two months after the attack, “the prevalence of probable PTSD was 11.2% in the greater New York area and 4.3% across the United States as a whole” (Marshall et al.). Note the difference of results between the U.S. and Israel in terms of exposure. It could stem from numerous variations, such as size of country and would justify further research. Indeed, understanding the various variables leading to variations would be crucial to better estimates for the case of the attacks at hand: for example we could test the hypothesis that the further away not only in geographical terms and exposure but also feeling of “imagined community”, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, the least likely the relative risk appraisal would operate to favour the happenstance of TSR disorders (TSRD) (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and. Spread of Nationalism, 1983, 1991, 2006).

The number of people suffering of these disorders drops after 6 months but does not disappear. Studies found that 6 months after 9/11, between 3.4% and 5.8% of people indirectly exposed through media experienced PTSD symptoms (Ibid.). In the New York area, the six-month prevalence of PTSD in the directly affected subgroup of New-Yorkers was 12.0% … and in the indirectly affected group, 3.7% (Ibid.). Always in New York, one year after the attack 4.2 % people had PTSD and the following year this number fell to 3.3%(Joseph A. Boscarino, Richard E. Adams, and Charles R. Figley, “Worker Productivity and Outpatient Service Use After the September 11th Attacks: Results From the New York City Terrorism Outcome Study“, Am J Ind Med. 2006 August ; 49(8).

The repetition of attacks, although potentially allowing for desensitisation (Bleich et al., Ibid.), also obviously multiplies the number of people who can suffer from TSR disorders, thus spreading over time adverse consequences within the very fabric of everyday life of a society.

Operations within businesses may be impacted inasmuch as the staff is psychologically hurt, which can virtually hit almost anyone, with various consequences according to whom develops TSRD and to the size of the company: a small company with, for example 10 employees, which sees one crucial member of its staff suffering of PTSD may see its overall activity more hurt than a very large company employing thousands of people, when someone can more easily be replaced.

The findings from Israel regarding less severe “suffering of one symptom of TSR” let us expect that three quarters of the population may be impacted (Bleich et al.) Thus,  pretty much all companies will have to deal with negative symptoms and, as a result, impacts on operations. The impact of the psychological trauma is not only limited  to the few months following the attacks, but could last much longer, as seen. For example, Boscarino et al. document a loss of productivity (measured through work loss and lower work quality), especially through lower work quality stemming from PTSD, notably during the second year following 9/11.

Human Resources Offices and related services should thus pay a particular attention to the potential for terrorist attacks as stemming from related geopolitical uncertainties. Meanwhile clients and suppliers may also be impacted, and this should be kept in mind by all staff dealing with them.

Depression and impaired productivity

Depression is another symptom that has been observed following terrorist attacks.

For New York residents, a study found that 11% of workers had depression during the first year following 9/11 and 10% during the second year. Depression was found as a major cause of work loss and lower work quality during the first year following 9/11, mitigated by self-esteem (Boscarino et al., Ibid).

In the case of the second Intifada, Bleich et al. (Ibid.) find that “58.6% [of respondents] reported feeling depressed or gloomy and 28% that they felt “very” depressed or gloomy.” Yet, the authors also point out that “the majority of participants (82.2% [421/512]) stated that they felt optimistic about their personal future and 66.2% (337/509) that they felt optimistic about the future of Israel.” We thus are presented with strange results, as one of the characteristics of depression is “pessimistic thoughts” (DSM-IV Criteria for Major Depressive Disorder – MDD). Further research would be needed to investigate this phenomenon, all the more so that it is used to outline the resilience of society (e.g. Vaxman, Ibid.).

Considering the impact on work quality, again, human resources offices, as well as those staff dealing with clients and suppliers which may be likewise, impacted should pay attention to terrorist attacks and to uncertainties leading to them.

From Insomnia to Burn-out

Also working on the Second Intifada, researchers found out that fear of terrorist attacks heightened the probability to develop insomnia two years after the attacks. In turn, the tiredness generated by insomnia led to heightened odds to see the impacted people experiencing job burnout “two years after insomnia increased” (Sharon Toker, Gregory A. Laurence and Yitzhak Fried, “Fear of terror and increased job burnout over time: Examining the mediating role of insomnia and the moderating role of work support“, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Volume 36, Issue 2, pages 272–291, February 2015; George Watson, “Fear of terrorism hastens path to burnout for Israeli workers“,  Texas Tech University, 19 Feb 2015).

Note that insomnia may be part of PTSD and TSRD, as well as of depression (see MSD Manual and DSM-IV Criteria). It may also be experienced without PTSD, TSRD or depression.

As previously, human resources offices, and staff dealing with clients and suppliers, are most concerned here. Interestingly, Toker et al. study also points out that co-workers’ support but not management concern had a mitigating impact and suggests that the creation of a work environment conducive to this adequate support could be key (Ibid.). Assuming the current campaign of terrorist attacks continues, as the December 2016 attack in Berlin or the February 2017 Louvre attack in Paris (e.g. The Telegraph) indicate, we are thus faced here with the possibility to have to fundamentally re-design work spaces and possibilities for employees relations, assuming companies do not want to see their operations impacted because of adverse consequences of terrorism on staff, including management and senior executives.

Socio-psychological symptoms with negative collective impacts:  avoidance and aggressive behaviour

Impaired sense of safety and avoidance

People living in societies victims of terrorist attacks tend to experience an impaired sense of safety, which lasts for a relatively long time. In the 2002 survey in Israel, 60.4% people feared for their own safety and 67.9% for the lives of family and friends (Bleich et al, Ibid).  After 9/11 in the U.S. we find a similar impact: six months after the attack 40 to 50% of Americans “feared for their safety and that of family members” (Marshall et al.). One year after the attack, in New York, up to 73% people feared for their own safety and 75% for the lives of family and friends (Ibid.).

As fear for safety leads, besides notably the fear to relive painful memories, to avoidance behaviour (Marshall et al.), this psychological impact is particularly important.

Avoidance behaviour, which is not always considered as pathological, means that affected people will avoid places and situations where they feel their life can be threatened, considering the previous terrorist attacks. For example, after 9/11 people avoided flying:  airlines’ passenger traffic in the U.S. dropped by 20% for September to December 2001 (Marshall et al.; Gigerenzer). This avoidance led to an increase in driving at least for the next three months and, also, unfortunately to more death out of car crashes (Gigerenzer, Ibid; Ropeik D, “The consequences of fear“, EMBO Reports, 2004 Oct; Spec No 5). After the March 2004 Madrid attacks, for the two following months, people in Spain reduced train travel, however less significantly, and there no increase in driving-related death was observed (Gigerenzer; López-Rousseau, “Avoiding the death risk of avoiding a dread risk: the aftermath of March 11 in Spain“, Psychol Sci. 2005 Jun;16(6) ).

For the current string of attacks, a similar avoidance phenomenon seems to be observable in Paris, although comprehensive and detailed studies focusing on avoidance for these attacks are not (yet) available: following directly the November 2015 attacks, cafés and restaurants saw a drop in attendance of 44% and 58% respectively, while hotels saw their occupancy rate lowered by 51% (Sondage Synhorcat auprès des adhérents, 20 novembre 2015 in “Rapport au Premier Ministre sur la Destination France après les Attentats“,  Rapporteur M. Sharon Elbaz, Prime Minister Office, Sept 2016: 25). Avoidance continued, although less starkly, in the following months (Ibid, p.26-31)*. The attack in Nice and St Etienne de Rouvray in July 2016, again led to touristic avoidance not only in the Cote d’Azur (region of Nice) but attendance and occupancy rate remain bad in Paris, at least until September. At the end of the first semester 2016, the number of tourist in France had fallen by 7% since january 2016 (Ibid.). The sector of tourism for the region Ile de France (region around Paris) lost 1 bn euros for the first semester. We may note here that the recurrence of attacks appears to lead to a much longer avoidance compared with flight avoidance and 9/11.

Considering the very direct impact of this specific psychological consequence on business operations, it seems obvious that the corporate sector should definitely consider terrorist attacks and the geopolitical uncertainties from which they stem. As attacks are varied in their modus operandi, the way forward would be to start wondering where and how the activity of a company could become victim of terrorist attacks, considering understanding and knowledge available on the perpetrators, i.e. in our case the Islamic State and other similar Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda. Contingency plans to face and mitigate avoidance could then be developed peacefully in advance and only activated if the threat materializes. Planning in advance would be even more important in the case of terrorist attacks that CEOs, managers and staff being human beings, they are as susceptible as others to be hit by the various psychological symptoms following terrorist attacks, which may then not be very conducive to think peacefully and strategically. Furthermore, in such dire circumstances, having a plan ready could contribute to a much-needed safety feeling for staff and management.

Rise of aggressive behaviour

Finally, research on the socio-psychological consequences of terrorist attacks points out a probably less known but as important impact: “the impulse to respond aggressively” (Marshall et al., Ibid.) going hand in hand with a “sense of victimhood” (Vaxman, Ibid.)

As a result, at least three interactive collective consequences may be observed.

First, in the case of Israel, a “brutalization of interpersonal relations” was observed through the proxy of school violence and proliferation of firearms (Simha Landau, “Societal Costs of Political Violence: The Israeli Experience“, Palestine-Israel Journal 10, no. 1 (2003); Vaxman, Ibid.).

Second, and relatedly, “violent crime (homicide and robbery) and property crime” increased in a way that is found related to the stress generated by terrorism, as well as to potentially increased hardship as generated by the impact on the economy: between 2000 and 2001 in Israel, criminal homicides increased by 28% and robberies by 11%(Simha Landau, Ibid.; Vaxman, Ibid.).

Finally, it has been showed that terrorism leads to a “hardening of  attitudes” against the group responsible, or perceived as such,  for the terrorist attacks (Nehemia Friedland and Ariel Merari, “The Psychological Impact of Terrorism: A Double-Edged Sword“, Political Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1985). Indeed, as explained by Vaxman, “terrorist attacks increase negative beliefs about and hostile attitudes toward the opposing group the terrorists claim to represent” (Daniel Bar-Tal and Daniela Labin, “The Effect of a Major Event on Stereotyping: Terrorist Attacks in Israel and Israeli Adolescents’ Perceptions of Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs,” European Journal of Social Psychology 31, no. 3 (2001); Vaxman, Ibid.). This, added to the rising aggression and thus societal brutalisation, as well as to the feeling of “victimhood”, may only lead to a rise in hate crimes, as was also observed in the case of 9/11 (Marshall et al., ibid.).

As far as 9/11 was concerned, the increase in hate crimes seemed to have mainly occurred within 10 days following the attack (Ibid.), which corresponds to the impulsive aggressive reaction. However, in cases where attacks are repeated, then the impulsive reaction might be transformed into the more pervasive brutalization pointed out by Landau (Ibid.).

As a result, we may wonder if the Islamic State’s and other jihadists’ string of attacks does not participate in the contemporary rising polarization of society, which is observable notably throughout the Western world, as is evidenced by the brutality at work during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and its aftermath, as well as by the extreme reactions of the media and of the losing side after Mr Trump came President, as again shown by the very controversial cover page of the German magazine Der Spiegel on 4 Feb 2017 (BBC News, “Der Spiegel: Trump beheading cover sparks criticism“, 4 Feb 2017). It is most probably not the only cause, as explained in Lessons from and for the Brexit – Geopolitics, Uncertainties, and Business (2) (Helene Lavoix, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 22 Nov 2016),  but it cannot either be ruled out that it does not play a part. Feelings of victimization and its corollary of sentiments of entitlement and self-righteousness added to brutalization of societies are certainly not conducive to composed and wise democracies.

As far as violent crime is concerned, businesses should foresee them and take adequate preventative measures. As for the more general brutalization, this should also be considered in details, according to the activity of each business, while a better understanding of the processes at work and how they can evolve in the future should be promoted before policies are decided. Indeed, it may well be that decisions taken too rapidly or without proper analysis were themselves taken under conditions of “aggressive response and victimhood feeling”. Adequate related lobbying could also be endeavoured.

To conclude, studies on 9/11 and the Second Intifada also point out the resilience** of both the American and Israeli Society to terrorist attacks (e.g. among others, Marshall et al.). In the case of the Second Intifada, resilience suggests that a phenomenon of de-sensitisation could take place when terrorism occurs repeatedly and on a long period (Vaxman, Ibid.; Bleich et al., Ibid.). However, first, this potential  de-sensitisation does not consider the brutalization pointed out by Landau (Ibid.). Further research would thus be needed.

Second, since 2001 for 9/11 and 2000-2005 for the second Intifada, eleven years have gone by.  The world and the international system, as well as all the countries targeted and threatened by the Islamic State’s and other jihadists’ terrorist attacks are caught in the unsettling times of transition.  To this should be added the variety of targeted countries in the case of the current and potentially near future attacks, with different societies, values and belief-systems, political systems and interests, compared with past attacks on single countries, heterogeneous yet each being unified by values and beliefs. Thus, the very resilience that was displayed then should not be taken for granted now, but on the contrary cautiously checked. Targeted societies may be now and in the near future more or less resilient to the attacks, terrorism becoming then one of the causes that contribute to the transitional changes, besides potentially feeding polarization as pointed out above. The possible absence or lowered resilience of the victim societies, in turn, would heighten the importance of the socio-psychological impacts of terrorism on society as a whole, as well as, de facto, on its actors, making it even more important to foresee them and to feel concerned by the issue.

*Note that the report to the French Prime Minister does not consider the psychological aspect of avoidance and thus does not take into consideration corresponding measures that could have also been designed to face this specific impact.

**We use here the definition of resilience given by B. Walker, C.S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter, A. Kinzig Resilience, 2004, “Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems,” Ecology and Society, 9(2): 5: “The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” Note that the choice of the definition will greatly influence what may be seen or not as a resilient behaviour to terrorism.

Featured image: Battling PTSD, Marines, May 24, 2010, United States government work, Public Domain.

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.