While ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State, take your pick) is on the world’s mind, recent research is giving us better insight into the terrorist mind. Simplistic ideas about naïve souls being brainwashed or indoctrinated into fanatical beliefs are giving way to more empirically-grounded theories stressing group commitment and “engaged” followership.
Every psychology student is familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies. The results indicated that ordinary, decent people could be compelled to induced harm on innocent others when they perceived a legitimate authority figure was commanding them to do so. Under the right circumstances, any of us could succumb to the “I was only following orders” rationalization.
Recently, psychologists Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher have re-analyzed Milgram’s findings, re-examined some of his unpublished notes, and conducted their own variants on Milgram’s studies. Their work suggests something different was going on. Rather than reluctantly dutiful minions, Milgram’s “teachers” (subjects who seemingly inflicted electric shock to a “learner” when the learner gave incorrect responses on a simple memory test) may have been far more willing collaborators. Haslam and Reicher paint a picture of a teacher who strongly identified with the experimenter and experimenter’s goals. Teacher and experimenter were partners in the advancement of science. Failing to fulfill one’s responsibilities was both a personal betrayal as well as an impediment to scientific progress. Loyalty to a perceived greater good justified the means used to achieve the goal.
Their work dovetails nicely with that done earlier by psychologist Jeremy Ginges and colleagues who studied whether it was religious belief or ritual participation that accounted for support for suicide bombings. They surveyed people regarding frequency of prayer (used as the index of belief), worship attendance (used as the index of ritual participation), and support for suicide attacks. Surveys were conducted among Palestinian Muslims (both West Bank and Gaza residents), Indonesian Muslims, Mexican Catholics, British Protestants, Russian Orthodox, Israeli Jews, and Indian Hindus. In every sample it was attendance at worship services that predicted support for suicide attacks and not prayer frequency. Indeed, in at least one subsample (Indonesian Muslims) prayer frequency was negatively correlated with support for suicide bombings – that is, more devoted Muslims were more likely to opposed suicide attacks.
Ginges et al. concluded that it was the ritual formation of strong group identities and the powerful emotionally bonding of people to those identities that were important driving forces behind support of terrorists’ methods. While religious ritual is a highly effective group-bonding mechanism, it is not unique in this respect. Fraternities, military services, and social/political movements make use of the same basic principles and processes. Ritual and group bonding are fundamental to human community and all the positives associated with that. This research highlights the dark, dangerous side of our highly social nature.
Putting these studies together we have a potent recipe for extremism. First, get people to believe deeply and sincerely in the righteousness of their cause using reason, persuasion, emotional appeals, whatever works. Second, embody that cause in a compelling, charismatic authority figure with whom people strongly identify and are loathed to betray. Finally, use emotionally engaging rituals to bond people into a cohesive, committed group. Note well, however, that this recipe applies not only to groups such as ISIS, but nearly all the soldiers from any nation (including the US) who have been sent off to war over the millennia and presumably those we are currently training to battle ISIS.
Author: Matthew Rossano, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University