After a terror attack, amidst the shock and sadness, there is simple incomprehension: how could anyone be so brutal, so inhuman? In Nature Human Behaviour, Sandra Baez and her colleagues offer rare insight based on their tests of 66 incarcerated paramilitary terrorists in Colombia, who had murdered an average of 33 victims each. The terrorists completed measures of their intelligence, aggression, emotion recognition, and crucially, their moral judgments.
On most measures, such as intelligence and executive function, there were no differences between the terrorists and 66 non-terrorist control participants from the same region. The terrorists admitted to more aggression, as you’d expect, and they showed difficulties recognising anger, sadness and disgust.
However, the most striking group difference concerned moral judgments on 24 different scenarios. Unlike control participants, the terrorists judged acts of intended harm with neutral outcomes (such as intending to poison someone, but failing) to be more morally permissible than acts of accidental harm (such as poisoning someone by mistake). In a follow-up, the terrorists also rated attempted harm as more morally permissible than accidental harm, as compared with a group of incarcerated non-terrorist murderers.
Baez and her team said this distorted approach to morality implies a problem weighing intentions combined with an excessive focus on outcomes, and it is similar to the moral perspective taken by very young children and by adult neurological patients with damage to the frontal lobe and temporal lobe of their brains (but not by psychopaths who do seem to weigh intentions when making their moral judgments).
“The profile observed in the terrorists may reflect their fixation on utopian visions whereby only (idealised) ends matter. That is, their outcome-based moral judgments may be related to the belief that any action can be justified,” the researchers said.
This research involved Colombian terrorists who had joined paramilitary organisations mainly for economic rather than ideological reasons. It remains to be seen if the specific deviant moral code uncovered in this research is also a characteristic of Islamist terrorists.
A promising avenue for future investigation, the researchers noted, will be to see if careful tests of moral judgment could be used to predict likelihood of future offending in dangerous offenders; also to study whether and how radicalisation alters the nature of people’s moral judgments.
Image: In the conflicted area of Putumayo province, south of Bogota (Colombia’s capitol) and not far from the Colombia-Ecuador border, a member of the AUC paramilitary squad takes a break after combat against the FARC leftist guerrillas November 12, 2000 in Colombia. By Piero Pomponi/Liaison via Getty Images.