On psychological tests comparing 66 terrorists with controls, one key difference stood out

By Christian Jarrett

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.

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From Baez et al, Nat Hum Beh

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.

Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists

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.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

9 thoughts on “On psychological tests comparing 66 terrorists with controls, one key difference stood out”

  1. complete claptrap – the idea that terrorists have cognitive biases toward moral decision making is ludicrous – terrorism is an ideology borne out of toxic anger, injustice, control, and socio-political forces. There is no consideration of cause and effect in how you’ve presented these study findings.

    1. Peter , I agree with you about the underlying causes of terrorism , but this study does not attempt to explain the causes of this possible cognitive bias but just looks at an internal process which may be lead to terrorist behaviour.

  2. Exactly what is meant by “economic reasons ” in this research ? Are they saying that these terrorists were mercenaries , or that they were motivated by economic reasons, perhaps generalised from their own situation , such as huge inequality in the society they lived in or lack of work for large parts of the population ? ( the last 2 reasons would be partly ideological , in my opinion ). There is also a lack of definitions of terms used , such as “terrorist” and what constitutes “ideological reasons ” .

  3. The biggest terrorists I know so far has been those that have displaced millions for profit created divides and gained out of others pain. They control land which was never theirs and through there bloody mindless way of life other cultures are called ” native” and on the verge of extinction…. WTF WAKEUP

  4. It’s over-thinking. I’ve worked with dangerous patients, even murderers, and there is one simple trait that people who have been raised in soft Western countries can not and will not accept. There are individuals out there who, plain and simple, love to kill. It is the only sensation of power and accomplishment they will ever have and the most thrilling act they can engage. All thought processes on this are a smoke screen rationalisation. I wish it were a better world, but be advised: there is no cure.

    1. yes, indeed, the sense of power derived from killing should not be underestimated – and the very people raised in soft, western countries are those who defend meat eating, bullfighting and fox hunting: it’s not only habit and taste, it’s power.

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