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See Inside October/November 2008

The Psychology of

How we characterize an issue affects how we think about it. Replacing the "war on terror" metaphor with other ways of framing counterterrorism might help us curtail the violence more effectively



Vladimir Dmitriev/iStockPhoto

On the eve of our national election, we realize that one challenging issue facing the next president is how to address terrorism and the options for counterterrorism. As psychological research has made clear, what he and his administration say about these issues will influence how the public thinks about them—and will affect our national and international policy. [For more on the power of words, see “When Words Decide,” by Barry Schwartz; Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007.]

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, the Bush administration has used a battle metaphor: the “global war on terrorism” and the “war on terror.” Such descriptive terms simplify complex realities, making them more mentally manageable. But they do not adequately represent the complexities of the problem, resulting in selective perception of the facts, and they may reflect the views of only a few key policy makers. Nevertheless, they can guide national decision making. The wars that began in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 clearly demonstrate that the concept of a war to combat a method of violence used by nonstate agents is more than rhetoric.

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