Pseudoinefficacy, a New Approach to Deterrence: Exploiting the Connection Between Perceived Risk, Affect and Self-Efficacy


Figure 1. Causal loop diagram depicting the dynamics of demotivating terrorism.

Causal Loop Diagram. The above causal loop model depicts the theoretical framework that was developed during the course of this project. As policy and resources are directed to deterring terrorism, countermeasures that target beliefs toward specific behaviors and countermeasures that target beliefs about expected outcomes increase. As countermeasures that target behaviors increase so does the perceived difficulty of carrying out an attack (perceived task difficulty), negative emotions associated with the planned attack (negative affect) and the percentage of failed attacks (failure ratio). These three factors in turn cause confidence in successfully carrying out an attack to decrease (perceived self-efficacy). As perceived self-efficacy decreases anxiety (anxiety) associated with the planned attack increases. Increased anxiety and decreased self-efficacy serve to decrease motivation (motivation) to carry out the attack. Decreased motivation decreases the number of attempted attacks (attempted attacks), which is the central objective of deterrence. Decreased motivation also decreases over time the required level of countermeasures needed to target terrorist behaviors.

Likewise, there are measures that might thwart the hoped for outcomes of terrorists (countermeasures targeting expected outcomes). These measures could include risk communication that inoculates the public against negative emotions like fear (resilience). Additionally, media could be used to portray terrorist acts as having little effect in the scheme of things (meaningfulness/impact). Both these types of measures serve to devalue any outcomes arising from an attack and hence decrease the perceived likelihood of hoped for outcomes (expected outcomes). Decreased expected outcomes decrease motivation and thus decrease the number of attempted attacks.

Project Summary. This project sought to develop a novel approach to understanding and facilitating deterrence in the context of domestic threats to commercial aviation and other high valued domestic targets. The end goal was to provide a framework for enhancing deterrence by exploiting the connection between affect, perceived risk, and self-efficacy. It sought to look at the connection between these three factors and how to correct misperceptions. This is the first study to the author’s knowledge that sought to exploit these inherent biases as a way to deter an adversary from seeking to defeat a security system.

The theoretical and empirical foundation to our approach to demotivating terrorists and other violent extremists can be expressed by a quote from social cognitive behavioral psychologist Albert Bandurra :“Beliefs of personal efficacy constitute the key factor of human agency. If people believe they have no power to produce results, they will not attempt to make things happen.” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3). Practically, this effort sought to provide the theoretical underpinnings to design subtle contextual cues that do the following to an adversary: 1) reduce the perceived likelihood of a successful attack; 2) diminish the belief in their actual ability to carryout attacks: 3) increase the perceived costs of carrying out the attack; 4) increase the perceived costs of getting caught and 5) diminish the perceived benefits of a successful attack.

Consistent with the Bandura quote, this research begins to develop a framework and to offer a viable approach to significantly reducing an adversary’s sense of efficacy with regard to defeating the security systems of high valued targets. It makes use of very recent work on the connection between affect and a novel concept referred to as pseudoinefficacy, which has been examined exclusively in the context of understanding pro-social behavior (Västfjäll, Slovic & Mayorga, 2015). In that context, it was found that various contextual factors allowed inappropriate negative affect to infiltrate and diminish the anticipated good feeling (known as warm glow) that motivates helping behavior. When this happens, it creates an “illusion of inefficacy” and demotivates behavior in situations where a person could actually have been effective. The proposition here is to reverse engineer this illusion to enable a defender to make contemplated terrorist plot feel less exciting, attractive, or effective, thus inducing a feeling of hopelessness with regard to the plot. According to the theoretical cognitive mechanism known as “the affect heuristic” (Slovic, Finucane, Peters & MacGregor, 2002) this should significantly heighten the perceived risk of failure and reduce the critical component of self-efficacy or organizational efficacy necessary to follow through with such plans. Note, this is different from merely fooling an adversary into thinking a target is better defended than it is. This approach seeks to erode the core motivation for engaging in the behavior by subverting the psychological affective system in a manner unlikely to be recognized.

The proposed framework suggests the need to decompose the decision calculus of terrorists and other violent extremists into beliefs and feelings about two fundamental outcomes: 1) The degree to which a set of behaviors (e.g. terrorist attack) is performed successfully and 2) The expected outcomes that might follow from such behaviors (e.g. deaths, economic loss, massive media coverage, public fear). In the context of traditional decision analysis, the former is akin to the belief that one can carry out the necessary steps involved with a particular alternative-usually this is taken as a given but here we treat it as an important uncertainty to be exploited. The latter is akin to beliefs about the uncertainty surrounding outcomes following from the successful execution of each alternative-this is similar to the assumptions involved with expected utility theory.

Separating beliefs into two components offers advantages when trying to demotivate terrorists because the psychology connected with each component is different. The motivation behind beliefs about one’s ability to engage in behaviors that lead to a successful attack is based on perceived self-efficacy. Perceptions of self-efficacy are closely associated with the context of the task or challenge in this case a particular style of attack against a given target domain (e.g. successfully carry a bomb through passenger checkpoint at the airport). Efforts to deter such behavior should seek to erode the confidence that these actions can be carried out (e.g. random searches at airport, canines on patrol). The motivation behind beliefs about the desired consequences following such behaviors is less about personal self-efficacy and more driven by expected utility. Efforts to deter behavior from this perspective should focus on mitigation of perceived benefits (e.g. reduced loss of life or economic impact, public resilience against fear) or increased perceived costs (e.g. large costs to carry out the operation, or large opportunity costs).