Why do people say and do things that are contrary to what they really think or feel?

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An international team of researchers has found that people have lower levels of activity in brain in areas related to cognitive control and reasoning when they are focusing on sacred values.

In their paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the group describes their study involving brain scans of terrorist sympathizers and what they found.

Prior research and anecdotal evidence have shown that once a person develops sacred values regarding a particular topic, it is difficult to get them to change their minds.

Prior research has also shown that people who have certain sacred values are often more willing to fight and die for a cause than others.

In this new effort, the researchers sought to learn more about what goes on in the minds of people who have expressed a willingness to die for a cause that is based on sacred values – in this case, sympathizers of an Al-Qaeda offshoot called Lashkar-et Taiba.

The researchers note that sometimes, people say and do things that are contrary to what they are truly thinking or feeling.

For this reason, they chose to recruit several sympathizers for brain scan testing.

They claim that neuroimaging rules out posturing by individuals because brain signals related to brain processing cannot be controlled.

Testing involved asking the volunteers questions while they were undergoing fMRI scanning.

The questions concerned their sacred values, such as whether they would be willing to fight and die for these values, and non-sacred values as a comparison.

The researchers report that they found that when the volunteers were being asked questions related to their sacred values, there were lower levels of brain activity in areas related to reasoning and cognitive control.

Prior research has shown that such areas are typically involved in processing consequences and calculating costs.

They report that they also found that if they told the volunteers that other sympathizers they knew were less willing to die for a cause, their own willingness to do so dropped, as well.

The researchers claim their findings show that there are distinct processes that occur in the brain when a person is focused on issues related to strongly held sacred values.


Psychology of terrorist and psychology of terrorism: A short overview of the theories

First theories that came out from psychology were issued from clinical psychology and psychiatry (for overviews, see McCauley & Stout, 2004; Silke, 2003a).

They aimed to find elements of personality or pathologies from which a terrorist personality could arise.

In this sense, psychoanalytic theory such as the frustration-aggression or narcissic failure hypotheses, have unsuccessfully tried to find a “pathology of terrorist” (for a complete review, see Horgan, 2003). Silke (1998) notes that no evidence can be found that terrorists are mentally disturbed and Post (2005) unambiguously summarizes the reject of this old idea according to which terrorists could just be mad men:

“Indeed, it is not going too far to assert that terrorists are psychologically ‘normal’ in the sense of not being clinically psychotic.

They are neither depressed, severely emotionally disturbed, nor are they crazed fanatics.

Indeed, terrorist groups and organizations screen out emotionally unstable individuals.

They represent a security risk.”(pp. 195-196)

Other theories focus on the social causes of terrorism: poverty, education, ideology, religion, etc. Again, no strong evidence emerges from this hypothesis (for a review, see Stout, 2004).

Drawing on the same ascertainments, another and more goal-oriented conceptual distinction has been made by Kruglanski and Fishman (2006b) between terrorism apprehended as a syndrome and terrorism apprehended as a tool.

They noted that historically, terrorism was a syndrome with origins firstly identified as personal deviations and, later, as “external root causes”.

They proposed that another understanding is possible by thinking about terrorist and terrorism as two separate entities, more specifically by focusing on terrorism as a means to achieve certain goals, taking a top-down perspective.

Although most often a not really efficient tool, this perspective enables considering that “any social agent may become a ‘terrorist’” (p. 211) and apprehending terrorism as a social tool, not so different from others – even if morally different – which psychology can study for it lies within the scope of common psychological processes.

Psychology of terrorist does not exist: it is only a common psychology or a psychology of common people related to a societal object called terrorism and where “terrorism as such represents a psychologically coherent concept” as Kruglanski and Fishman (2006a) put it.

More interesting then is the psychology of terrorism as a tool to reach political, social and psychological goals.

In addition, terrorist’s psychological structure is embedded within the terrorism psychology, i.e., which psychological goals could be served by being part of a terrorist movement or believing that terrorism is a good means for political action.

Because terrorism per se seems not to be a rational means to achieve political ends (Abrahms, 2008), psychologists can propose other hypotheses as to why people still get involved in violent acts, bearing in mind that political and economical factors also play a role in terrorism.

Psychology of terrorist relies on how individuals can at some points of their life choose terrorism as a way to express their ideology, their opinion or their struggle.

Psychology of terrorism discusses the social psychological variables that underlie the terrorism phenomenon and the consequences of terrorist acts for people and political opinions.

The two sides of the coin are undoubtedly very much linked but we think that difference is relevant to better understand research on terrorism.

How people slither from common political struggle to terrorism

Even if terrorists are not mad men, still some men or women choose to be terrorist and other do not, whichever their environment.

Some psychological factors should then be at play in the path to violence

Deschesne (2009, this issue) explores possible psychological factors that could explain how people slip from struggle into violence.

More precisely, by experimentally assessing some findings on terrorism and youth violence bounds (Even-Chen & Itzhaky, 2007), Deschesne examines the relation between personal experience and the link between struggle and violence.

Interestingly, no definitive evidence that personal history or internal psychological factors are the best explaining factors for terrorism emerges from this analysis.

It seems, as far as we know, that such factors can only be complementary motives that explain singular acts and therefore that are of no relevance to explain how terrorism can find terrorists on a larger scale.

Existential motives

Terrorism could not only rely on specific psychological processes but on shared psychological processes, like suggested by Motyl and Pyszczynski (2009, this issue).

They point out that fear of dying could be one of the driving factors of terrorism because one consequence of making mortality salient is the defense of one’s own worldview against the source of the threat, i.e., against the group to which the terrorist belongs. Pyszczynski, Greenberg, and Solomon (1997) proposed the Terror Management Theory to explain some behaviors and cognitions in light of the existential fear of dying.

Facing the terror of the idea of our death, we reinforce the definition of our worldview and strongly defend the values it promotes (Greenberg et al., 1990; Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989) even with aggression (McGregor et al., 1998).

Doing this, we also increase our self-esteem, positively related to our worldview, to counter the feeling of being mortal (Harmon-Jones et al., 1997).

More recently, research has shown the effect of attachment as another possible buffer (Cox, Arndt, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Abdollahi, & Solomon, 2008; Hart, Shaver, & Goldenberg, 2005; Weise et al., 2008). Schimel et al. (1999) found that mortality salience increases the disliking of non-stereotypical others, i.e., of the outgroup.

More specifically, Das and her colleagues (Das, Bushman, Bezemer, Kerkhof, & Vermeulen, 2009) have also given some evidence that media depiction of terrorism results in an increase of prejudice against outgroups due to terror management processes.

This theory posits that we defend our own worldview, i.e., a part of our social identity, as well as our self-esteem as buffers against the fear of death.

As previously mentioned this may lead to derogating outgroups in order to maintain a positive identity and protect one’s own worldview.

Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, Fishman and Orehek (2009; see also Kruglanski & Fishman, 2006a) also suggested that motives for suicidal bombing should be understood within a personal significance framework. Kruglanski and his colleagues built a conception suggesting an integrated approach to motives for becoming a terrorist.

According to this model, individuals are searching for meaning and sense to their life and commitment into very tied groups like terrorist organizations fills this need of being part of something, making worth their living and eventually serving as a buffer against personal trauma.

The pathways to terrorism

Finally, as soon as we accept the idea that terrorist functioning is “normal” and not pathological, that they are not just mad men, but men like others, as ideologically complex and multisided than other people, that there are not simply seeking personal vengeance, nor wanting to commit suicide, and also that terrorism is not a “syndrome” of which causes lie in poverty or poor education, and that the means used in terrorism are not so different from some war means, we can deconstruct the concept of terrorism and ask how psychology can explain the choice of violence, being a terrorist being not an explanation any more, neither terrorism being a particular entity that follows different rules from other social objects (Victoroff, 2005).

The next step is to try to understand what makes some people share terrorist ideology and sometimes join terrorist groups, last step in the “staircase to terrorism” suggested by Moghaddam (2006; 2007).

More socio-psychologically driven, three main models are the ziggurat of zealotry, the already mentioned staircase of terrorism described by Moghaddam (2007), McCauley’s Pyramidal model (McCauley & Moskalenko, 2008) and the ziggurat of zealotry mentioned by Dechesne (2009, this issue).

The process described by all models is a slow one, starting with an easy social or political commitment to end with a full commitment to an extreme ideology.

This recruitment pathway has been clearly described in online strategy of terrorist groups who always begin interactions with recruits with a non-violent, social identity salient, and safe relation (Guadagno, Lankford, Muscanell, Okdie, & McCallum, 2010, this issue).

The underlying question is to understand the path from commitment and struggle to violence, i.e., how people in general and of course potential terrorists, go one step further, switching from peaceful struggle to violent actions.

All the three models are very similar in the sense that they imply several levels at the end of which one will finally form a part of a terrorist movement.

Even the ideological or religious dimension of terrorist motives remain complex.

As noted by Esposito and Mogahed (2008), Muslims claims are often related to their identity in a complex and changing world, and their worldview sometimes matches the anti-globalization perspective and attitudes (for the reject of occidental neo-liberal value and an all-american model, see Arkoun, 2006; and more specifically, Barber, 2003; Frégosi, 2006).

Such an ideology is therefore not so far from some other anti-globalization groups, the difference being that other factors direct the actions that are used.

Religion does not provide either a so clear explanation, and in-depth interviews carried out by Stern (2003) have revealed the complexity of the relation between creeds and terrorism, concluding that “terrorism we are fighting is a seductive idea, not as military target”, and that the reason found to fight is because “international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nation are imposing capitalism and secular ideas” (p.283).

In light of those studies the ideological background for terrorism becomes more subtle and more politically intricate, far away from the “axis of evil” used as a general label to mark out a socially easy to understand target.

What so different then from what was described for hate groups in America?

Young men, seeking answers and friendship, are recruited by hate groups. Researchers, mostly through ethnographical studies, have brought to light two underlying motives for joining hate groups, mainly search for affiliation, friendship and social bounds, and search for meaning and answers in life (Aho, 1990; Blee, 2002; Ezekiel, 1995), and excluded other factors like poverty or pathology.

Even the idea that Western societies are morally declining looks the same, only the chosen enemy is different.

The studies on terrorism we reported show indeed very similar motives, adding evidence that terrorism is a group phenomenon in the psychological sense, based on processes very similar to other group forming.

Threat and Social identity: A terror-identity vicious circle?

As Post (2005) wrote, we believe that “it is not individual psychology, but group, organizational and social psychology, with a particular emphasis on ‘collective identity’, that provides the most powerful lens to understand terrorist psychology and behavior” (p. 196).

Abrahms (2008) noted that international terrorism was not an effective strategy to achieve political goals, suggesting though that on the other hand, it was quite effective as a response to social solidarity needs.

In the same vein, the Putnam theory of social capital (Putnam, 2000) suggested that in some populations, being part of a terrorist movement fills a hole in the social environment.

Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1970; Tajfel & Turner, 1986) could be one major hypothesis explaining some choices of violence.

It posits that one part of people’s self “derives from their membership in social group (or groups)” (Tajfel, 1981).

Links between Social Identity Theory, self-esteem and the ingroup bias have been largely discussed (for a review, see Hogg & Abrams, 1990).

Others see in social identity a way of going beyond the notion of “war to terrorism” (Kruglanski, Crenshaw, Post, & Victoroff, 2008) or a promising and challenging investigation path when joined to TMT (Niesta, Fritsche, & Jonas, 2008).

The building of a social network as part of an identity structure is the main thesis of Sageman (2004). Where lies the cause of terrorism can therefore be found in group membership as shown by Doosje et al. (2007).

McCauley and Moskalenko (2008) stressed the importance of threat perception and group identity as core factors that can explain the choice of violent struggle.

Smith (2008) studied terrorist documents and found that they often reported needs of affiliation, and search of a group to belong to.

This need to belong is even stronger when group ideology becomes more extreme (Post, 1987).

Tausch, Spears, and Christ (2009, this issue) show that British Muslims may react differently to terrorism when different identities are made salient to them (i.e., different national and religious identities), suggesting that alternative social identities may lessen sympathy to terrorists.

Nevertheless, one of the goals that seems fulfilled by terrorism sympathy is social bounds.

Social affiliation is described by Sageman (2004) as a major issue in joining the Jihad.

Sageman rejects the idea of systematical brainwashing of believers in Mosque and argue that “social bonds predating formal recruitment into the Jihad” (p. 115).

He suggests that there are “bunch of guys” that joined to find social bounds and that they will first encounter extremist ideas and only find terrorism if at a certain point they find an entry point into a terrorist group.

Potential terrorists would be driven to violence by a deep negative identity that undergoes within the social structure of the group (social capital hypothesis; Putnam, 2000) and produces negative emotions that could lead to a lethal coping strategy.

That could be particularly true for immigrants populations in Europe that are, for the observers, a recruiting ground for most of the terrorists linked to international Jihadism.

Post and Sheffer (2007) report that “it is estimated that some 80 percent of new recruits to the global Salafi Jihad are children and grandchildren of Muslim emigrants who have felt alienated from their host cultures” (p. 101).

This point is also noted by Taarnby (2005) in a report on Jihadist recruitment in Europe.

He focused on European groups and found that the recruitment of potential Jihadists often begins with a search for an identity and a collective identity within groups of young men.

Drawing on similar yet non identical theoretical backgrounds, Smith (2008) notes that in a various number of terrorist groups, the affiliation motives are very strong.

Social identity is strongly related to group memberships that are positively perceived.

Therefore, if some young people “missed the community of their friends and family” (Sageman, 2004), they will seek a new community able to help them in creating new social networks and more social capital as would say Putnam (2000).

Furthermore, the strong collective identity provided by terrorists groups seems to answer the needs of some people experiencing a certain lack of identity and meanings in their life (Taylor & Louis, 2004)

Following terrorist acts, people present both a strong will to protect themselves and a desire for knowing who is accountable for what happened, this situation resulting in more stereotyping and rejection of the North African and Muslims groups (Staub, 2007).

The first people that could be derogated will be the immigrants as they are still in the integration process and especially salient.

Within the German population Muslims are perceived as more supporting terrorism than Christian although self–report do not reveal any difference (Fischer et al., 2007).

Muslims as a social group seem to have suffered from terrorist acts of a very small part of it and are now seen as potential terrorists and more religiously fanatic than in other religion; yet this does not match the facts as pointed out by Esposito and Mogahed (2008).

This question relies on what we can call the social identity hypothesis and we will refer here to the terror vicious circle that happened mostly in European countries because of their large Muslim communities.

Overall terrorism generates an increased hatred against Muslims from the local population, increasing stereotyping and derogation that in return produce a turning towards the Muslim identity.

This offers the possibility for religious and political leaders to make Jihad a component of this Muslim identity along with the rejection of all occidental values.

It must remain clear that this is not a systematic and automatic process but is a non-negligible possibility.


More information: Nafees Hamid et al. Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate, Royal Society Open Science (2019). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.181585

Journal information: Royal Society Open Science

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