What is it about?

This paper explores how people understand and respond to the labels “terrorist,” “lone wolf,” and “mass shooter” used for perpetrators of mass violence. While there are many similarities in how these terms are understood, there are also important differences. For example, we found that terrorists are perceived as more religious, while lone wolves and mass shooters are perceived as more likely to be White and to be U.S. citizens. Terrorists are more linked to groups and ideologies, and more associated with demonizing traits, while lone wolves and mass shooters are viewed as more depressed, sad, and lonely. The “terrorist” label also evokes less support for mental health treatment than a lone wolf, but leads to more support for policies supporting military involvement and tracking associates of the perpetrator than the other two labels.

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Why is it important?

There has been much public discussion around how the media or political figures choose labels to describe a specific perpetrator of mass violence and if there are biases that help explain when each label is applied. Our research demonstrates that the labels “terrorist” and “lone wolf” each evoke a unique image and understanding, showing that the labels we choose matter. Better understanding of what these terms evoke in the minds of the public can help avoid biased application of these labels that can have real consequences on public opinion and policy support.

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This page is a summary of: A perpetrator by any other name: Unpacking the characterizations and consequences of the “terrorist,” “lone wolf,” and “mass shooter” labels for perpetrators of mass violence., Psychology of Violence, May 2023, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/vio0000476.
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