By Harley Williamson

This brief is based on the following paper: Williamson, H. (2019). Pride and prejudice: Exploring how identity processes shape public attitudes towards Australian counter-terrorism measures. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, pp. 1-20.

What problem does your research address?

This research sought to answer the following question: To what extent do perceptions of threat and identity processes shape support for punitive counter-terrorism policies?

Why is this significant?

Counter-terrorism laws have become increasingly punitive. They afford authorities exclusive and expanded powers, and they restrict civil liberties (Piazza, 2015). Yet they continue to attract public support. This study examined how support for counter-terrorism laws is fostered. In traditional crime control research, findings consistently show a relationship between perceived threat from racial or ethnic minority groups and beliefs that they engage in crime at a higher rate than other population groups. Such attitudes result in public support for punitive crime control measures that are deemed to control individuals seen as an out-group and therefore as a “threat” (Unnever & Cullen, 2010). Similar connections can be made between terrorism and Muslims. Underlying this relationship are social identity processes that may explain how some people can support harsh crime control policies that disproportionately impact other groups. It is possible that perceiving Muslims as a threat may help explain how punitive counter-terrorism measures garner support (Doosje, Zimmermann, Küpper, Zick, & Meertens, 2009). This study examined this hypothesis.

How did you conduct your research?

We conducted a quantitative survey using the Facebook social media platform to recruit participants living in Australia. Researchers are increasingly turning to platforms that enable the collection of online convenience samples to conduct research (Pickett, Nix, & Roche, 2018). Facebook is thus becoming a well-known outlet for conducting research (Samuels & Zucco, 2013). It enables the net to be cast wider to attract participants interested in a study to complete the survey. Upon completion of the data collection and data cleaning, the final sample included 1,199 participants across all Australian states and territories. Regression analyses were conducted to determine the extent to which social identity processes and perceptions of threat predicted support for counter-terrorism policies. Socio-demographic characteristics were also controlled for in the analyses.

What are your major findings?

Findings of this study suggest that perceptions of threat matter most for explaining attitudes supportive of punitive counter-terrorism measures. Participants who perceived Muslims to be more threatening were more likely to support counter-terrorism laws that have the capacity to erode civil liberties and restrict human rights. Results of this study also show that those with a strong nationalistic identity as an Australian were more supportive of punitive counter-terrorism measures. We also tested the combined effect of identity processes and perceptions of threat, finding that support for counter-terrorism measures was strongest among participants who identified most strongly with their national Australian identity and perceived Muslims as threatening.

What does your research mean for policy and practice?

This study has three key implications:

  1. The public approval of counter-terrorism measures that afford authorities exclusive powers to restrict freedoms points to the potential for the dismissal of fundamental civil liberties, democratic processes and human rights. This possibility is potentially problematic in Australia where no formal Bill of Rights exists (Lynch, McGarrity, & Williams, 2015). As punitive attitudes can shape policy decisions, it is important to strike a balance between preserving national security interests and enacting proportionate legal responses.
  2. The influence of perceptions of threat towards Muslims reflects the continued presence of social exclusion (Chiricos, Welch, & Gertz, 2004). This is ironic given a primary component of Australia’s counter-terrorism response is to enhance inclusion. In addition, Muslims are often the target of counter-terrorism measures, which can exacerbate divisive attitudes. Therefore, it is important to ensure community strategies can effectively unite diverse communities and shape public attitudes towards counter-terrorism responses.
  3. If negative attitudes towards Muslims continue to spread and be tolerated, laws that are deemed to control those seen as a threat will continue to be used. It is therefore important to denounce public support for policies that are driven by intolerance towards minority groups (Unnever & Cullen, 2010). Equipping communities with the tools necessary to reduce intergroup biases will assist in changing potentially harmful attitudes towards minority groups.


Chiricos, T., Welch, K., & Gertz, M. (2004). Racial typification of crime and support for punitive measures. Criminology, 42(2), 358–390.

Doosje, B., Zimmermann, A., Küpper, B., Zick, A., & Meertens, R. (2009). Terrorist threat and perceived Islamic support for terrorist attacks as predictors of personal and institutional outgroup discrimination and support for anti-immigration policies – Evidence from 9 European countries. Revue Internationale de Psychologie Sociale, 22(3), 203–233.

Lynch, A., McGarrity, N., & Williams, G. (2015). Inside Australia’s anti-terrorism laws and trials. Sydney, Australia: NewSouth Publishing.

Piazza, J. A. (2015). Terrorist suspect religious identity and public support for harsh interrogation and detention practices. Political Psychology, 36(6), 667–690.

Pickett, J. T., Nix, J., & Roche, S. P. (2018). Testing a social schematic model of police procedural justice. Social Psychology Quarterly81(2), 97-125.

Samuels, D. J. & Zucco, C. (2013). Using Facebook as a subject recruitment tool for survey-experimental research, SSRN Paper. DOI:  

Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2010a). Racialrethnic intolerance and support for capital punishment: A cross-national comparison. Criminology, 48(3), 831–864.