ExtremismBrain scans reveal cognitive triggers for extremist violence

Published 18 June 2019

Scanning the brains of men who support a terror organization associated with Al Qaeda reveals insights into the psychology of radicalization and terrorist violence. Arguments and attempts at persuasion that rely on rational and seemingly reasonable attempts to pull people away also will have limited impact because the part of their brain associated with deliberative reasoning has deactivated.

In a new journal article, a team of scientists led by Scott Atran, an adjunct research professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School and Institute for Social Research, reveals insights into the psychology of radicalization and terrorist violence, gained by scanning the brains of men who support a terror organization associated with Al Qaeda.

The research was conducted by Artis International, a consortium of academics and policymakers supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva Program and the Air Force of Scientific research and the Minerva Program. The article is published in The Royal Society.

In a conversation with Michigan News, Atran details the research and an understanding into the psychology of the respondents.

Michigan News: What are “sacred values” and what role do they play in influencing radical ideologies and leading to violent extremism?
Scott Atran
: Sacred values are defined as non-negotiable preferences that are immune to material tradeoffs. Previous research by our team in conflict zones, such as Palestine-Israel, and on the ISIS frontline in Iraq, suggest that when people lock into sacred values, then material incentives (economic carrots) or disincentives (sanctions as sticks) only backfire.

Once people are willing to fight and die for sacred values they are at an advanced stage of radicalization or revolutionary fervor, standard approaches to de-radicalization almost always fail.

MN: How did you use brain scans in the research? What did those tests reveal?
: In this new effort, we 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 associate called Lashkar-et Taiba.

Brain scans of nonconscious neural processes pretty much rule out posturing. We first spent nearly two years interviewing and gaining the trust of members of the Pakistani immigrant population of Barcelona, then ran behavioral tests to figure out which individuals supported militant jihad.

We then put some of these individuals in a scanner, where they were asked about their willingness to fight for Islamic causes, from the sacred, such as opposing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, to nonsacred, such as the availability of halal food. We found that the brain used different networks when considering different causes.