Joint Committee On Human Rights Written Evidence

11.  Submission from The British Psychological Society to the JCHR's inquiry into counter-terrorism policy and human rights

The British Psychological Society welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights into the subject of counter-terrorism policy and human rights.

  Our comments will address both developments in counter-terrorism policy in the UK since 7 July 2005, including the measures discussed by the Prime Minister at his press conference on 5 August 2005, and the provisions of the Terrorism Bill (as published on 12 October 2005). We would also like to draw the Joint Committee's attention to our previous submissions in these areas.

  We believe that our particular area of expertise is most appropriately focused on the issues of `encouraging and glorifying' terrorism. These issues arise in both the proposed powers of the Home Secretary and the provisions of the draft Terrorism Bill. We also wish to comment on the extension of the period of detention by judicial authority.

  We note that the Terrorism Bill published on 12 October 2005 (and announced by the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke on 6 October 2005), includes several amendments from previous versions. The original specific offence (Section 2 of the previous draft) of "glorification of terrorism" has been deleted. This is welcome, but we note that "glorification" remains within the new Section 1 of the Bill. The issues of psychological perspectives on "glorification", "intent", "incitement" and "encouragement" therefore remain worthy of discussion.


  Psychology has a wealth of evidence regarding processes of persuasion and social influence (e.g. Cialdini, 2001). A critical conclusion from this literature is that influence is not purely in the hands of the source or promulgator of information. Rather, the potential for influence lies in the nature of the relationship between the source and target, and in the wider context within which the relationship exists (Abrams & Hogg, 1990).


  The offences listed in the provisions of the Terrorism Bill are very broad and cover issues that can clearly be distinguished in psychological terms.

  The list:

Encouragement of terrorism

   1 Encouragement of terrorism

   2 Dissemination of terrorist publications

  (3 Application of ss 1 and 2 to internet activity etc.)

  (4 Giving of notices under s 3)

Preparation of terrorist acts and terrorist training

   5 Preparation of terrorist acts

   6 Training for terrorism

  (7 Powers of forfeiture in respect to offences under s 6 )

   8 Attendance at a place used for terrorist training

Offences involving radioactive devices and materials and nuclear facilities and sites

    9 Making and possession of devices or materials

  10 Misuse of devices or material and misuse and damage of facilities

  11 Terrorist threats relating to devices, materials or facilities

  12 Trespassing etc. on civil nuclear sites

  covers five psychologically different issues: Acts (items 9, 10, 11, and 12), Preparation, training or practical support for such acts (items 2—in part, 5, 6, and 8) , Encouragement of acts through the dissemination of publications or otherwise (items 1 and 2—in part) and Glorification of terrorism (elements of items 1 and 2).

  We wish to make a number of points specifically relating to issues 1 and 2.

  In general terms, many of the terms used in the draft Bill are either vaguely defined or have multiple meanings. Observers may well disagree as to the meaning of terms such as "encourage", "incite", "glorify" and even "information". In particular, for psychologists, terms such as "encouragement" or "incitement" refer to the speaker's intentions and to the likely or possible effects of statements on the audience. It is very difficult to judge—and certainly to judge beyond reasonable doubt—what a person intended and what the effects of any statements may be. When the known disputes (even at the level of the United Nations) about the definition of "terrorism" itself are also considered, the possibility for judicial inconsistency is great.


  The draft Bill, as it stands, deals with two different issues in Section 2—the provision of information and the encouragement of terrorism. Thus, Section 2(2)b deals with "information of assistance in the commission or preparation" etc, whereas Section 2(2)a deals with "direct or indirect encouragement". These should be separated.

  The elements of Section 2 that deal with dissemination of information as encouragement and glorification—subject to our other caveats below—should be clearly distinguished from those elements of Section 2 that deal with dissemination of information of practical utility. These two issues are different in psychological terms.[82]


  The issues of "encouragement" and "glorification" of terrorism are essentially psychological. These are combined in Section 1 as a single offence, (we presume), because they are believed materially to increase the likelihood of terrorist acts being committed. They are, therefore, psychological in their mode of action—they are offences because of the psychological effect they might have on others. Encouragement and glorification are, however, very different from each other.


  Psychological evidence on social influence (Cacioppo & Petty, 1986) and older work on obedience and conformity (Asch, 1951, Milgram, 1974) suggests that social pressure from peers or by figures of authority—may sometimes increase the probability of conformity to an instruction or group norm, even when this is antisocial or involves negative behaviour. The boundary between "instruction" and "encouragement" is a fine one. If a group opinion leader says "I think we should" do something, that is likely to be adopted as a norm, and to be a "prescriptive" norm (see Cialdini, 2001, also Abrams, Marques, Bown & Henson, 2000). Personal relationships between the encourager and the actor (House, 1981) and the personal authority of the encourager (Milgram, 1974) are also highly pertinent.

  "Encouragement" per se, however, is not guaranteed to lead to a particular act being committed (we know that encouragement to give up smoking does not lead to a smoke-free nation). This is especially true if the encouragement comes from a minority source (e.g. one person advocating extremist action in the context of the wider peer group resisting such action). The fact that influence from groups has much more impact than influence from lone individuals suggests that convicting individuals may be extremely difficult because, if they have been at all effective, they will have had the support of others, and therefore would be highly unlikely to be solely responsible for the encouragement.

  Psychologists would argue that such encouragement is a relatively weak, and certainly indirect, influence on final behaviour. Given the complexities of defining the mechanism that makes attempted encouragement actually encouraging, the decision to outlaw "encouragement" seems likely to be almost impossible to implement on a reasonable basis.

  As well as the considerable variability in individual skills at persuasion, group-based norms, and individuals' vulnerability to persuasion, psychology has identified a large number of perceptual and decision stages that will be required before a potentially encouraging source of influence causes a person to act in a particular way. General statements of encouragement—in the contexts of widespread public condemnation of terrorism—are likely to very ineffectual, and indeed may even have the reverse effect (as attested to by research on thought suppression—Bargh, 1992).

  It follows that caution should be exercised if an offence of "encouragement" is to be retained. Moreover, in such a case, it follows that care should be taken to ensure that "encouragement" refers to a direct communication to a potential actor, and that the communication must have a specific and explicit goal. If a clause such as Section 1(1)b were to be retained, therefore, it should be amended to remove the words "or indirect"—to leave the issue of direct communication alone.


  The issue of intent (which we believe is also commented upon by other respondents) is important here. In psychological terms, as outlined above, there is a clear difference between general, indirect statements—the impact of which on a potential actor could only be via their attitudes and beliefs concerning (in this case) terrorism, and specific, direct, statements to a potential actor—the impact of which could indeed alter their behaviour.

  In addition to focusing Section 1 on "direct" encouragement, therefore, the British Psychological Society welcomes the fact that Section 1 of the draft Bill includes the requirement that, for an offence to be committed, the person must "know or believe, or have reasonable grounds for believing, that members of the public to whom the statement is or is to be published are likely to understand it as a direct [...] encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences" (grammar changed and "or indirect" deleted).

  We are not lawyers, and therefore do not know whether this wording constitutes a test of "intent". Psychologically, however the twin issues of a "direct" communication in the "knowledge or belief" that the recipient will understand this to be an encouragement to action are important. We recommend that the Bill be drafted to ensure such a distinction between the expression of (contemptible) views to a general audience and the intentional and direct encouragement of terrorist acts. In addition, however, we assume that the purpose is to refer to an expectation on the part of the communicator that the act of encouragement or persuasion would actually be effective. A person who makes a highly controversial speech may do so more to provoke a counter reaction from their enemies than to encourage specific acts among followers or other members of their own groups.


  The justification for outlawing "glorification" (in Section 1(2)a and elsewhere) is understandable, but in psychological terms is meaningless without a proper context.

  Whereas encouragement is a direct communication to a potential actor, "glorification" is an indirect communication. It is fair to say that "glorification" may (or is intended to) alter the collective or individual belief systems or attitudes of other people such that the resulting change in their views concerning terrorism may increase the likelihood of the acts being committed. Again, psychological science (especially the theories of reasoned action and planned behaviour) tells us that the adoption of certain attitudes does indeed make some acts more likely. However, this is only true if these attitudes are held more strongly than counterveiling attitudes and there are no stronger sources of influence from social norms, and there are sufficiently weak practical barriers to action.

  Therefore, there are very important caveats here. The linkage of actions covered by this Bill to terrorist acts is tenuous. Thus, acts (9-12) are directly associated with terrorism. Preparation for such acts (5-8) is clearly closely allied to the acts themselves. Encouragement, even direct encouragement, is one further stage removed. Glorification is further removed still. Glorifying (exalting or celebrating) terrorism does not impact on a potential actor directly—in the manner that encouragement can. Importantly, the same words, phrases or images may glorify (and potentially encourage) emulation by people who already sympathise with the perpetrator's values and goals, but may result in rejection and opposition from those who do not. Therefore, a critical issue is not just the content, but also the intergroup context within which a supposedly glorifying episode takes place (Abrams & Hogg, 1990). In addition, glorification of one's own group does not necessarily imply hostile acts towards others (Brewer, 1993, Mummendey & Wenzel, 1999). Therefore, it could be argued that exalting terrorists does not necessarily imply any specifiable inducement of others to engage in terrorist acts. Without the personal and authoritative links that would render the behaviour of the individual "direct" "encouragement" as outlined above, psychological science would strongly suggest that glorification of terrorism would merely add to the generality of public views on terrorist acts that would be a partial influence on behaviour. It would be extremely difficult to establish any direct or unalterable causal link to acts of terrorism.

  For these reasons, the British Psychological Society strongly welcomes the Home Secretary's decision to delete earlier Section 2 from the draft Bill.

  However, several points remain. First, Section 1(1)b(ii) should be amended to refer only to `direct' encouragement (and the same issue should be addressed elsewhere in the Bill—Section 1(2), Section 2(2)a, Section 2(3), Section 2(4), Section 3(7)a, Section 3(8)). Second, we would wish to ensure that the term "glorification" does not appear anywhere in the Bill (Section 1(2)a and 1(2)b, Section 2(4)a and 2(4)b, Section 3(8)a and 3(8)b, Section 20(2), Section 21).


  Section 23 of the Bill extends the period of detention for terrorist suspects without charge to three months. In previous submissions in regard to anti-terrorism provisions, the British Psychological Society (2004) commented on the potentially damaging consequences of both indeterminate detention and the nature of any interrogation or treatment experienced during detention on detainees' mental health. While we recognise the distinction between indeterminate detention and the provision of a three-month period of detention by judicial authority, the British Psychological Society is also concerned to protect the health of people thus detained. The Joint Committee may wish further to consider the appropriateness of this period, and may wish to consider whether legal provisions and practical safeguards are necessary to protect the mental health of detainees.



  In the Prime Minister's press conference on 5th August 2005 the grounds for the exercise of the Home Secretary's powers of exclusion or deportation were described as:

    "The new grounds will include fostering hatred, advocating violence to further a person's beliefs, or justifying or validating such violence."

  The psychological issues pertaining to `fostering, advocating justifying or validating' violence echo those relating to "encouraging and glorifying" terrorism above.


  The British Psychological Society is unambiguously opposed to torture in all forms. We have recently adopted a declaration repudiating torture and the involvement of psychologists in torture. We therefore cannot condone the possibility that non-UK nationals might be deported to countries where they may be at risk of torture and other abuses of human rights.

  We note that the Prime Minister commented that "The assurances given by the receiving nation are adequate for their courts, and these countries are also of course subject to the European Convention on Human Rights and apply it directly in their own law."

  Non-Governmental Organisations report routine human rights abuses in a number of the countries at issue. In many cases these abuses are perpetrated by junior officials and this may well occur without the direct and specific instigation of the Head of Government. We recommend that the Joint Committee examines closely the mechanisms proposed by which those countries will ensure that individual persons deported from the UK will not in fact be tortured.

  There are practical psychological reasons for questioning whether torture would serve any useful intelligence purpose. Arrigo (2004), among other comments, pointed out that up to 95% of the victims of torture fail to comply with the demands of the torturer under even the most extreme pressure, and there are convincing psychological reasons to believe that the practical effectiveness of torture has been much over-emphasised—the justifications for torture being more likely to be revenge on the one hand and an instinctive desire to do `all one can' in the face of a terrorist threat.

  For all these reasons, the UK Government should avoid all temptations to permit any person to be under any threat of torture.


  The British Psychological Society has less to comment in these respects.

  We note that the Prime Minister stated that "anyone who has participated in terrorism, or has anything to do with it anywhere will be automatically refused asylum in our country". We note that the phrase "has anything to do with it anywhere" is extremely loose, and hope that the procedures themselves will be much tighter.

  We do not feel particularly well qualified to comment on other aspects of the Prime Minister's statement.


  Although interesting, the British Psychological Society does not feel qualified to comment in detail in respect to these proposals. We agree with other commentators who have stressed the importance of any evidence in criminal cases being open to being tested in court.


  Although interesting, the British Psychological Society does not feel qualified to comment in detail in respect to these proposals.


  As we have stated elsewhere (British Psychological Society, 2004), we believe that a commitment to the promotion and protection of Human Rights should be a priority for government. Psychological science offers a valid basis for the consideration of Human Rights (Kinderman, 2001; Doise, 2003). From this perspective, human rights are seen as normative social representations embedded in institutional juridical definitions—the codification of how we collectively understand our relationships and obligations to each other.

  In this context, we believe that it is reasonable to expect some limitations on freedom in return for security—such compromises appear part of everyday life and seem entirely consistent with ordinary interpersonal relationships. However, it is fair to say that such limitations would be appropriate if they are proportional to the threat or danger involved. From a psychological perspective, it is important that the provisions such as those in the draft Terrorism Bill are perceived as proportionate to the threat.

  Moreover, people actively appraise their personal circumstances, developing and testing "models" of the world (eg Johnson-Laird, 1985). They do not act as automata, but actively formulate individual evaluative belief systems. When discussing the perceived proportionality of the security response to threats of terrorism in respect to personal liberty, it is necessary not only that this proportionality is objectively established, or established in the opinion of the security services and politicians, but is also that the general public understand and accept that such a case for proportionality has been made.

  In respect to both the UK population and the world community, one final psychological issue is to consider how any UK legislation and extra-legislative procedures will be interpreted by others. For legislation to be effective it has to be seen to be fair. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that consensually valued principles of fair procedure (regardless of outcomes) are applied equally to potential terrorists and to others. If a particular group feels that unfair procedures are applied uniquely to them, it is highly likely that they will become resentful, disgruntled and potentially seek to overturn the procedures by legitimate or illegitimate means (Tyler and Blader, 2002; Wright & Taylor, 1998). Commentators have suggested that some communities (especially black and minority ethnic communities, Muslim and other faith communities and Asian, East African, Arab and other Muslim countries, etc) feel under attack at present. It has been commented that some measures intended to address terrorism in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s may have acted as a "recruiting sergeant" for armed groups. We would hope that the Government has conducted a psychologically-informed "cost / benefit analysis", weighing up the likelihood of these measures reducing the risk of terrorism versus increasing people's sense of injustice and thus increasing the likelihood of radicalisation.

24 October 2005


  Abrams, D & Hogg, MA (1990) Social identification, self-categorization and social influence. European Review of Social. Psychology, 1, 195-228.

  Abrams, D, Marques, JM, & Hogg, M.A. (2000) The scope of social psychological models of inclusion and exclusion. D.Abrams, JM Marques & M.A. Hogg (Eds.) Social exclusion and inclusion. Psychology Press.

  Arrigo, JM (2004) A utilitarian argument against torture interrogation of terrorists. Science and Engineering Ethics. 10(3):543-72.

  Asch, SE (1951) Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgement. In H Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

  Bargh, JA (1992) The ecology of automaticity: Toward establishing the conditions needed to produce automatic processing effects. American Journal of Psychology, 105, 181-199.

  Brewer, MB (1993) Social identity, distinctiveness, and in group homogeneity. Social Cognition, 11, 150 164.

  British Psychological Society (2004) Response to a consultation on: "A Human Rights Commission: Structure, Functions and Powers (Joint House of Commons House of Lords Committee on Human Rights). British Psychological Society, Leicester.

  British Psychological Society (2004), Response to a consultation on: "Counter-Terrorism Powers: Reconciling Security and Liberty in an Open Society (Cm 6147). Statutory Review and Continuance of Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001): House of Lords Paper 38/House of Commons Paper 381". British Psychological Society. Leicester.

  Cacioppo, JT & Petty, R. E. (1986). Social proceses. In M. G. H. Coles, E. Donchin, & S. Porges (Eds.), Psychophysiology: Systems, processes, and applications (pp. 646-679). New York: Guilford Press

  Cialdini, RB (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

  Doise, W (2003) Direitos Humanos: Significado Comum e Diferen[lcced]as na Tomada de Posi[lcced]aõ [Human Rights: Common Meaning and Differences in Positioning] Psicologia: Teoria e Pesquisa. 19(3), 201-210.

  House, JS (1981) Work, stress and social support. Reading Mass. US: Addison-Wesley.

  Johnson-Laird, PN (1985) Mental models. [In] Aitkenhead, A.M., & Slack, J.M. (Eds.), Issues in Cognitive Modeling. Sussex: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Ltd..

  Kinderman, P (2001) Mental Health and Human Rights. Science and Public Affairs. December 2001: 14-15.

  McKnight, Sechrest and McKnight (2005) Psychology, psychologists, and public policy. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 1:557[en rule]576.

  Milgram, S (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row

  Mummendey, A & Wenzel, M (1999) Social discrimination and tolerance in intergroup relations: Reactions to intergroup difference. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 158-174.

  Tyler, TR and Blader, S (2002) The influence of status judgments in hierarchical groups: Comparing autonomous and comparative judgments about status. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 89, 813-838.

  Wright, SC & Taylor, DM (1998) Responding to tokenism: Individual action in the face of collective injustice. European Journal of Social Psychology , 28 , 647-667.

82   McKnight, Sechrest and McKnight (2005) recommend that psychologists should avoid comment on matters of political policy or opinion in the absence of direct evidence from psychological science. For this reason, although there are many legal and civil rights issues about the legal powers in relation to issues 5-12 which will be of great interest to psychologists who work with the victims of abuses of human rights and which have a psychological dimension, the British Psychological Society believes that these are issues best commented upon by others at present. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 5 December 2005