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This Is Your Brain on Terrorism

The Science Behind a Death Wish

A brain scan at Glasgow Univers​ity, 2003 TSPL/Camera Press/Redux

In September 2014, when the Islamic State (ISIS) was at the height of its power, Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged that the United States had underestimated the terrorist group’s will to fight. “We underestimated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese and overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese,” he told The Washington Post. “In this case, we underestimated ISI[S] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army … It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.”

Scholars and policymakers have long sought to determine what drives people to keep fighting when the chips are down, and, if need be, to give their lives to a cause. Traditional explanations, based on rational choice theory or focused on mental abnormalities, have largely failed to explain what motivates the members of extremist insurgent movements. But Clapper was wrong to suggest that the will to fight is imponderable. In fact, it is possible to predict who is willing to fight and die, based on a combination of cultural and psychosocial factors. Research on the human brain suggests that people fight when their sacred values—that is, the values that define their identity and therefore can’t be compromised—are under threat.

In a series of behavioral studies of frontline combatants in Iraq and brain imaging studies of self-identified extremists in Spain, research teams of which I am a part at Artis International, Oxford University, and other partner universities found that those most willing to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying, were motivated by sacred values and shunned deliberative reasoning. Even more consequential for policymakers working to prevent and counter radicalization, we found that social exclusion and political marginalization heightened the importance of sacred values—and even caused non-sacred values to mimic sacred ones—increasing people’s willingness to fight and die for those values.

SACRED DUTY

Despite what the term suggests, sacred values are not necessarily those enshrined in holy books. They can stem from

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