As a rule, the aggrieved are weaker than the government. So, they naturally worry that their outrage will be ignored. To overcome this power asymmetry, they sometimes wield violence in a shocking way. And nothing shocks society like attacking its civilians. Indeed, terrorists acknowledge that they turned to violence for their political message to be heard. As the leader of the Tamil Tigers put it: “The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances…for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness.”1 The head of the United Red Army, an obscure offshoot of the Japanese Red Army, admitted: “There is no other way for us. Violent actions…are shocking. We want to shock people everywhere…It is our way of communicating with the people.”2 Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri likewise described September 11 as a “message with no words” which is “the only language understood by the West.”3 Clearly, political scientists are onto something when they characterize terrorism as a “communication strategy.”4

There’s no question that violence attracts attention. The adage “If it bleeds it leads” captures this reality. As the sociologists, Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani remind us, however, “It is the content of the message transmitted as well as the quantity of publicity received which is important for the social movement.”5 By definition, terrorism gets noticed; otherwise, it wouldn’t terrorize. But does the attention help the perpetrators to convey their grievances?

The evidence is unconvincing. In the 1980s, Michael Kelly and Thomas Mitchell did a content analysis of 158 terrorist incidents covered in the New York Times and Times of London. The terrorism seemed to “sap…its political content” as “less than 10 percent of the coverage in either newspaper dealt in even the most superficial way with the grievances of the terrorists.”6 Historical accounts confirm that the Weather Underground could “bomb their names on to the front pages, but they could do next to nothing to make sure that the message intended by their bombings was also the message transmitted.”7 The sociologist Charles Tilly observed that American journalists didn’t grasp the political purpose of Chechen hostage-taking in the 1990s beyond “senseless acts” of violence.8 As Bonnie Cordes has observed, “Although terrorism is often described as a form of communication, terrorists are rather poor communicators” because “the violence of terrorism is rarely understood by the public.”9 Indeed, terrorists themselves frequently complain that their violence was misunderstood by the target country.10

Why is terrorism such an ineffective means for perpetrators to broadcast their desired political ends? I’ve discovered a new cognitive heuristic in international affairs called the Correspondence of Means and Ends bias.11 The bias is that citizens of target countries seldom locate the goals of terrorists in their demands, so the violence fails to amplify them. Rather, people tend to infer the extremeness of the perpetrators’ goals directly from the extremeness of their tactics against them. As its name suggests, the bias posits that citizens draw a direct correspondence between the extreme means of their adversary and its extreme ends. Notwithstanding the nature of their actual demands, terrorists are thus seen as harboring radical political preferences by dint of their tactics.

To test this heuristic, I conducted an experiment embedded in a survey of a made-up group issuing a moderate demand, like for the government to transfer a small amount of money into its bank account. In the control, respondents were told that the perpetrators used nonviolent tactics, while in the treatment respondents were led to believe that the perpetrators instead used violence against civilians. The two conditions were, therefore, the same, except in the treatment the moderate group adopts a more extreme method by killing the civilians rather than leaving them unharmed. As the Correspondence of Means and Ends bias would predict, respondents who thought that the perpetrators used terrorism were substantially more likely to believe their goals were extreme even though the perpetrators explicitly said they were actually quite moderate. Because of this human tendency to infer the extremeness of their ends directly from the extremeness of their means to achieve them, terrorists are generally seen as unappeasable radicals regardless of their actual demands.12

This chronic misunderstanding has several policy implications. First, the Correspondence of Means and Ends bias ensures that media depictions of terrorist motives will remain highly unreliable albeit predictable. The media will continue to reflexively portray terrorists as unappeasable extremists even when their demands are surprisingly moderate. Nonviolent protests will attract less attention but their political message will resonate. Second, my cognitive heuristic helps to explain why terrorists will seldom achieve their political goals. Terrorism is not only correlated with political failure but actually lowers the odds of government concessions. This empirical finding holds true even after controlling for the relative weakness of the perpetrators. The aggrieved will be tempted to escalate to terrorism but it will rarely advance its stated political ends. Just the opposite, governments will generally respond to terrorism by digging in their political heels and going on the offensive against the extremists.13 Third, governments must also avoid harming civilians not only for normative reasons but for strategic ones as well. Washington and other governments around the world invest heavily in public diplomacy to sell themselves as benevolent. Their motives will be assessed, however, not by what’s in their heart, but on what they do on the ground.

Read the full series “Extremism in Historical and Evolutionary Perspective”:

  1. Introduction by Anthony Lopez and Hammad Sheikh
  2. The Virtue of Extremism is its Enhancement of the Ordinary by David Barash
  3. Extremism as Defense by Rose McDermott
  4. Why Extremism Isn’t the Real Issue by Mark Sedgwick
  5. What is Radicalization? by Sophia Moskalenko
  6. Conservative Extremists Are Afraid of Threats That Don’t Exist by Colin Holbrook and Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook
  7. Extremist Violence Has Its Roots in Morality, Not Ideology by Clark McCauley
  8. In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism by Zoey Reeve
  9. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of Terrorist Recruiters by John Horgan and Katerina Papatheodorou
  10. Why Terrorists Are Misunderstood by Max Abrahms
  11. Why Religious Extremism is Maladaptive by Richard Sosis
  12. The Extremist in Historical Perspective: Lessons from the Era of Anarchist Terrorism by Randall Law
  13. Terrorism and the Apocalyptic by Charles B. Strozier
  14. Extremist Groups Require the Greatest Trust Among Members by Melissa McDonald
  15. Moral Rigidity Evolved to Strengthen Bonds Within Groups by Antoine Marie
  16. Sacred Values, Social Identities, and Extremist Violence by Nafees Hamid


[1] Richardson, L., (2007). What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. Random House Incorporated, 50.

[2] McKnight, G. (1974). The Mind of the Terrorist. Michael Joseph: London, 168.

[3] Bergen, P. (1997). “Interview with Osama bin Laden.” CNN.

[4] Pape, R.A., (2006). Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Random House Incorporated.

[5] Della Porta, D., Diani, M. (2006). Social Movements: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell: Boston, 180.

[6] Hewitt, C. (1993). Consequences of Political Violence. Dartmouth: Brookfield, VT, 52.

[7] Lichbach, M. (1998). The Rebel’s Dilemma. University of Michigan Press, 113.

[8] Cordes, B., Hoffman, B., Jenkins, B., Kellen, K., Moran, S., Sater, W. (1984). Trends in International Terrorism, 1982 and 1983. RAND: Santa Monica, CA, 1.

[9] Cordes, B., Wilkinson, P. and Stewart, A.M., (1987). Euroterrorists Talk About Themselves: A Look at the Literature. Contemporary Research on Terrorism, 321.

[10] See, for example, O’Malley, P. (2007). Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa. Viking Adult.

[11] For more on this bias, see Abrahms, M. (2018). Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History. Oxford University Press.

[12] Abrahms, M. (2013). The Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics. International Studies Quarterly, 57(4), 660-671.

[13] Abrahms, M. (2012). The Political Effectiveness of Terrorism Revisited. Comparative Political Studies, 45(3), 366-393.

Published On: February 19, 2020

Max Abrahms

Max Abrahms

Max Abrahms is an Associate Professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University. His research focuses on terrorism. He has held affiliations with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, the Empirical Studies of Conflict project at Princeton University and Stanford University, the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, the political science department at Johns Hopkins University, and the Belfer Center at Harvard.

One Comment

  • Laura Akers says:

    Your ideas make sense. Another explanation that outsiders — the general public, the media, and other major actors — may not give terrorists’ agendas a careful examination would fit within dual-process models of information processing (see Daniel Kahneman’s work for a summary). People process information first on a heuristic level, and only proceed to more effortful processing if they have a solid motivation to justify their greater expenditure of time and effort. It may be that the more extreme an act, the more likely it will trigger a strong negative affect heuristic — something to be horrified by and withdraw from, not something to inspire our curiosity and thoughtful analysis.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.