Misrata, Libya, 2011. I am ushered into the boardroom of what was once an oil investment corporation. I am surrounded by youths with Kalashnikovs. On the other side of the table are several of Libya's most respected rebel leaders, foremost among them Salim Jawha, a former colonel in Muammar Gaddafi's army who defected on the first day of the revolution.
In the preceding months, over 1,000 rebels have been killed and many thousands more horrifically injured. Stories of heroism are commonplace. For example, on March 6, Gaddafi's forces—supported by seven tanks and some 25 or so vehicles with mounted machine guns—attempted to re-take the city but were ambushed and overcome by rebels. Despite the imbalance of military hardware and heavy loss of life, the rebels prevailed through astonishing courage and determination.
I'm here because I want to know what motivated thousands of civilians, most of whom had never even held a gun before, to take up arms as part of a popular uprising in which death was far likelier than victory. A more general version of this question has been guiding my research for some years, in my work with a wide variety of military groups ranging from tribal warriors in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea to highly trained soldiers in the British special forces and Royal Marines. One of the themes that continually surfaces in these conversations is that fighters don't put their lives on the line for abstract values like "king and country" or "God, freedom, and democracy." They do it for each other.
When people undergo painful or scary ordeals, those experiences stick with them through life—they change to such a degree that, without those experiences, they really wouldn't be the same people anymore.
At the University of Oxford, I lead an international network of researchers dedicated to understanding what makes bonds so strong that people will fight and die for the group when it is threatened. Our research suggests that one of the most powerful causes of extreme pro-group action is the sharing of self-defining experiences. If so, this has profound implications for the way we should approach conflict resolution and counter-terrorism. Public debate and policymaking has been dominated for years by the view that extreme beliefs are what motivate extreme behaviors. I disagree—but with such a tide of popular opinion against me, I need evidence not only from the laboratory or even from the assault course and training camp, but also from the frontlines. This has brought me to Libya.
Seated beside me is Brian McQuinn, my doctoral student, whose shared interest in the cohesion of armed groups led him to enter the country via Malta on a converted fishing trawler several months earlier. Through his earlier work for the United Nations and the Carter Center, McQuinn acquired formidable skills for establishing rapport with fighters and ex-combatants in troubled regions. I am nevertheless dazzled by his ability not only to spirit me into Libya at this difficult time but then also through the heavily armed fortifications of this rebel stronghold for an audience with Misrata's revolutionary leaders.
Jawha lights a cigarette, then exhales slowly: "When the revolution began, there was no compulsion to join. We just called our friends and asked them: Do you want to die or not? If you want to die, come with us. If not, go home and stay out of harm's way. This is not a time for reflection and discussion. He who wishes to die can accomplish anything. He who does not may go in peace."
It is said that any one of the civilians-turned-fighters in Misrata's ka'tib (battalions) was worth 10 times a professional soldier in any conventional army. Why? According to Jawha, what matters for a revolutionary is the goal, not the job. Goals, he continues, engage you personally, and if you care about them enough, you will do anything in your power to bring them to fruition. Jobs, by contrast, are just a way of paying the bills—you'll do the minimum necessary for a regular paycheck, and that's all.
I ask Jawha for an example of heroism. In a room packed with people who have lost scores of their closest friends in frontline combat, this is probably a tactless request. His steely blue eyes fix me through the smoke and he replies: "The tanks were driving into Tripoli Street and there was a flag on the back of this tank; a kid of maybe 13, he climbed onto this tank as it was moving. Why? Just to remove the green flag and put our flag. The revolutionary flag."
The boy no doubt expected to be killed. Everyone expected him to be killed. Amazingly, he survived. Thousands of other rebels didn't.
In an impromptu memorial to the martyrs of the revolution in Misrata, headshots of martyrs were placed on public display alongside booty seized from Gaddafi and his supporters.
People commonly associate extreme self-sacrifice with Islamist martyrs in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia, but the phenomenon is actually much more ancient and widespread than that. Willingness to walk into the jaws of death for the sake of a group has been far more commonplace in the human past than the current discourse acknowledges. The concept of a suicide attack, in the public imagination, has become so inextricably linked to jihadism that, for many of us who repudiate radical Islamist teachings, it has become practically impossible to imagine extreme self-sacrifice as anything other than an outgroup trait—the anthropological term for something that crazy people in other cultures do, but not something that we could ever engage in.
But is what motivates Islamist martyrdom really so different, psychologically, from what drove young men to sign up in droves 100 years ago to serve as cannon fodder in World War I? How many of us would lay down our lives for our closest family members if there were no other way to save them? I suspect rather a lot of us would do the latter almost as a natural, inescapable expression of the bonds of kinship.
Is it this sort of common psychology that drives self-sacrifice and suicide attacks, or is it—as many opinion leaders would have us believe—an especially dangerous and virulent form of religious dogmatism? The religion narrative may be the easiest to tell, but rigorous empirical study among very different types of groups across the globe suggests something more complicated: a story in which every human being contains the potential for violent self-sacrifice.
To many observers of suicide attacks, it seems obvious that religious dogmatism alone is to blame. The dogmas of Islam are often singled out as examples. On the one side there are public intellectuals, including Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, who have long argued that Islam is essentially a totalitarian religion that insists on punishing unauthorized deviation from its tenets, not only among followers but among non-Muslims as well. For these commentators, the acts of barbarism carried out by ISIS are as fundamentally rooted in the teachings of Islam as the officially sanctioned beheadings and extreme forms of corporal punishment in nation-states such as Saudi Arabia. In much the same vein, Harris, Hitchens, and others have repeatedly insisted that what motivates suicide attacks is likewise the savage dogmatism of a medieval religious cast of mind—and above all the belief that acts of martyrdom will be rewarded in the afterlife. The central argument among such thinkers is that this theocratic mind-set, a rare but dangerous throwback to the past, is what drives the various forms of terrorism plaguing the world today.
An alternative interpretation comes from the ranks of more moderate forms of Islam and its defenders among the liberal intelligentsia. Liberals often like to say that Islam itself does not promote violence; rather, certain authoritarian states and terrorist organizations manipulate the teachings of Islam to sanction their own brutality, but these are perversions of Muslim doctrine and unrepresentative of the moral majority. Note, however, that apologists seeking to explain extreme actions as the behavior of a putative moral minority nevertheless employ the same logic as Harris and Hitchens. Reza Aslan, for example, distinguishes what he calls the "cosmic war" of al-Qaeda from more prosaic skirmishes that we routinely see among rival groups everywhere. In other words, an extraordinary ideology (in this case, the "cosmic dualism" of radical Islam) is blamed for making people do barbaric things on a more barbaric scale than would be the case without that ideology.
Ironically, both atheists and moderate Muslims cut their arguments from the same cloth: They argue that extreme beliefs are responsible for motivating extreme behavior. The only difference is that liberals and moderates attribute extreme beliefs to a radical minority in Islam, whereas the New Atheists argue that extremism is woven into the very fabric of religious thinking itself.
The idea that beliefs drive behavior is seductive. For Harris and many others it is a simple and inescapable fact. As Harris writes in The End of Faith: "As a man believes, so he will act. Believe that you are a member of a chosen people, awash in the salacious exports of an evil culture that is turning your children away from God, believe that you will be rewarded with an eternity of unimaginable delights by dealing death to these infidels—and flying a plane into a building is only a matter of being asked to do it."
But if Libya's revolution was motivated by belief—e.g., that Gaddafi was an evil dictator who should be overthrown—then why did it take people so long to act? And why did some people fight and die while others ran away? These questions, so apparently simple, are far from easy to answer.
A vast body of evidence from experimental psychology spanning many decades shows that what motivates behavior is often not available to conscious awareness and hardly containable within straightforward, verbally articulable beliefs and arguments. In the case of extreme behavior there is an alternative explanation as to why people will fight to the death or blow themselves up—namely, that they are doing it for each other, for the group. They are not really doing it because of doctrines or ideologies or even in the hope of personal rewards in the afterlife based on those belief systems. True, suicide bombers may have the impression (or even the delusional conviction) that their behavior is driven by religious teachings, but that doesn't make it so. Nevertheless, if religious dogma is not the real motivator, what is?
Several years ago, psychologists, led by William B. Swann at the University of Texas–Austin, discovered a remarkably powerful form of group alignment, one that was capable of motivating extraordinary levels of pro-social commitment, at least when presented with hypothetical scenarios in which self-sacrifice was the only way to save other members of your group. They referred to this extreme form of attachment to the group as identity fusion. Excited by this new research, I went to Texas to find out more. It turned out that, although they had learned quite a bit about the mechanisms underlying fusion, and the optimal way of measuring it, they hadn't yet devised a well-developed theory as to what caused fusion in the first place. This is where I felt I had something to contribute.
As an anthropologist in the field, I had long been studying fusion without a way of measuring it. Still, I recognized the syndrome and had some ideas about its underlying causes. In the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, where my field research began, groups of young men underwent painful rites of initiation into small warrior cults responsible for carrying out daring raids and protecting the community from its enemies. This got me investigating painful or frightening rituals among a wide range of groups. And it became increasingly clear that the most unpleasant rituals were often found in groups that depended most for their survival on their members sticking together in the face of strong temptations to defect. Warfare is the most common example: There's a very strong temptation to run away in the face of enemy attack, so you need strong inducements to stand firm. While you can enforce loyalty to some extent (e.g. by shooting deserters) the more effective fighting units seem to be ones that are motivated by fusion rather than by coercion.
For a number of years now, I have been working with Swann and his group to find out what it is about painful rituals that causes participants to fuse with one another. And we think we've found out. When people undergo painful or scary ordeals, those experiences stick with them through life—they change to such a degree that, without those experiences, they really wouldn't be the same people anymore. This is even truer in the case of painful rituals: To the extent that rituals provoke a search for symbolic meanings, they can be experienced as quite revelatory and life-changing. In basic terms, painful rituals make people reflect more deeply. Such reflections enrich the essential narrative self (the distinctive autobiographical history that makes me, me—as opposed to anyone else). Our surveys with United States military, for example, show that the more war veterans reflect on the horrors of frontline combat, the more fused they are with each other.
"When the revolution began, there was no compulsion to join. We just called our friends and asked them: 'Do you want to die or not?'"
But how do you get from self-defining individual experiences to the social experience of fusion? Our research suggests that, when you believe others have gone through the same self-defining experiences, it makes the boundary between you and others more porous. This is the essence of fusion with a group. Once fused, people start to treat the group as part of themselves—and to feel empowered by that sensation. When you attack the group, it feels, to the fused person, like a personal attack. The urge to defend the group becomes as primal as the urge to defend the self.
All of which leads us to a rather startling hypothesis: that the reason people willingly walk into the jaws of death (e.g. by carrying out suicide attacks) is because they think that in doing so they are defending themselves and their group—which are really the same thing—against an outgroup threat.
The vast majority of Libyans who took up arms in 2011 were ordinary civilians, untrained and unprepared. They knew their chances of survival were poor. Many thousands were killed or suffered devastating injuries. With the blessing of the revolutionary leadership (secured through McQuinn's contacts), we surveyed 179 surviving members of four battalions. The goal of this survey was to measure fusion with various groups: family, members of the battalion, all fighters in the revolution, and those who supported the revolution but didn't participate in it. Roughly half the sample comprised frontline fighters; the other half were providers of logistical support within the battalions (e.g. they drove or repaired ambulances).
The findings reinforced in startling ways what I'd seen in Papua New Guinea: The overwhelming majority of revolutionaries were fused with their families, with their battalions, and with the members of other battalions. In relation to all these groups, no less than 96 percent of all revolutionaries chose the highest possible levels on the fusion scale. Such high levels of fusion are a sure sign that these men were psychologically prepared to fight and die for each other—though of course we hardly needed evidence of that under the circumstances. But we also found that only a very small proportion (less than 1 percent) of all revolutionaries were fused with those supporters of the revolution who didn’t take up arms. In other words, simply being on the same side ideologically (sharing the same beliefs and goals) doesn’t predict fusion. What really seems to matter is having experienced, together, the intense fear and pain of warfare by virtue of being in a revolutionary battalion.
Now comes a twist. We asked all participants in the survey to say which group they would choose as their primary fusion target if they could choose only one of them. In other words, we used a forced-choice question: They had to determine which group they were the most fused with. And here we found a striking difference between our two samples. Nearly half of frontline fighters chose their battalions over their families as the primary fusion target. By contrast, only 28 percent of those who provided logistical support chose battalion over family. One plausible interpretation of this finding is that frontline fighters were more fused with each other because they had undergone more intense, self-shaping experiences together.
In light of our research, three psychological explanations for extreme self-sacrifice stand out as especially promising. One is that people are willing to risk their lives to defend a group that they are fused with; they may also express ancillary commitment to the group's values or beliefs, but those ideological commitments exert little real power over their behavior. A second possibility is that fusion with a group is the main motivator of extreme self-sacrifice, but beliefs can also have an amplifying effect—basically increasing the power of fusion. A third possibility is that fusion motivates extreme self-sacrifice, but so, too, do beliefs, independently of fusion.
There are, of course, other possibilities, but these three are currently the focus of a major program of empirical research designed to tease apart the effects of fusion and belief. In a recent study, currently being written up, my associates Jonathan A. Lanman and Michael D. Buhrmester demonstrate that fusion beats fundamentalism hands-down in predicting endorsements of self-sacrifice. If that's true, maybe we should be looking for signs of fusion rather than signs of extreme belief in our efforts to overcome the threat of terrorism.
Does all this mean that we should stop blaming religion for suicide attacks? If by "religion" we mean beliefs in particular creeds, orthodoxies, doctrines, and stories, then the answer is yes. We should stop blaming those things until we have much better evidence that they really are the cause of extreme behavior.
Figuring out what makes individuals and groups act in ways conducive or obstructive to human thriving at any level (local, national, global, or whatever) is an urgent challenge for the policy world. And I mean urgent. We need to figure out the psychology of group alignment and its behavioral outcomes as a matter of the highest priority. The policy community may not appreciate how badly the relevant sciences have been lagging behind on this issue. Consider our study in Libya, for example, where we focused on the question of how fusion with comrades affected the behavior of revolutionaries. You'd be forgiven for thinking that there must have been loads of similar studies looking at the role of social cohesion in all kinds of military groups, from conventional forces to terrorist cells. But you'd be wrong. In fact, the only studies of cohesion in the military that we've been able to track down all concern factors influencing group performance—not willingness to sacrifice one's life for the group.
Unfortunately, "common sense" and received wisdom have been dominating the scientific research agenda when, in fact, we should be letting the science drive our ideas about the causes of extreme behavior. When we next hear politicians or public intellectuals declaring that ideologues, preachers of hate, or religious extremists are solely responsible for motivating suicide attacks and other acts of terrorism, let's not simply accept this as if it were an established fact.
Curtailing freedom of speech may do nothing to prevent or deter intractable conflict in the world. In fact, quite the opposite: A sense of oppression may constitute yet another threat, alongside bombs and bullets, to already embattled groups, fusing them ever more tightly together. If the theories we have been developing and testing are correct, a far more effective way to combat extreme behavior is to take seriously the transformative experiences of groups that feel oppressed or threatened.
It is possible, in principle, to modify the perceived authenticity and sharedness of such experiences through subtle interventions, at both an interpersonal and population level. Not only politicians, educators, and other public figures, but crucially also parents, religious groups, and their leaders could play a role in the process. But that will only be possible if we are all better informed about the real causes of violent intergroup conflict. In the end, science-driven approaches are likely to do far more than censorship and anti-Islamist rhetoric to stem the tide of radicalization, and to defuse those already committed to extreme pro-group action.
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