Whether you believe in such a thing as “pure evil” — that there are individuals inherently predisposed to intentionally harming others — can fundamentally change how you see the world. Strong belief in pure evil, for example, has been linked to increased support for the death penalty, torture, and racial prejudice.
Now a new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has looked at the link between belief in pure evil and the attributes we ascribe to perpetrators of violence. Focusing on mass shootings in the US, the team once again finds a relationship between belief in pure evil and harsher approaches to punishment.
Log on to Twitter, open a newspaper or turn on the news and you’ll soon see just how prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment is, as well as how likely collective blame is to be placed on the group as a whole for actions perpetrated by a few Islamic extremists. Though American mass shootings are far more likely to be perpetrated by white men than Muslims, collective blame is rarely assigned to that group — instead, they are characterised as “lone wolves”, even when they explicitly belong to or espouse the views of neo-Nazi, white supremacist or misogynistic hate groups.
In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online. At the time, Sarah Redmond at the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues were already a year into a longitudinal study to assess psychological responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing, which happened in April 2013. They realised that they could use the same nationally representative sample of US adults to investigate what kind of person chooses to watch an ISIS beheading – and why. Their findings now appear in a paper published in American Psychologist.
Terror attacks by Muslim extremists tend to provoke hate crimes in response. After the London Bridge and Borough market attacks in 2017, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, there was a spike in the number of reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Muslims. Two weeks after the London Bridge attacks, a British non-Muslim man even drove his van into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one and injuring 11.
“People have a tendency to hold groups collectively responsible for the actions of individual group members, which justifies ‘vicarious retribution’ against any group member to exact revenge,” note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that explores how to short-circuit this cycle of violence.
In what the researchers dub an “interventions tournament”, they tried out various methods of reducing the collective blaming of all Muslims for attacks by individual extremists. Most failed. But there was one clear winner: an intervention that encouraged non-Muslims to see the hypocrisy in blaming all Muslims for the appalling actions of a few individuals, but not all Christians for the violent actions of an extremist few.
By the time a terrorist attack has begun, the security services have already failed. But the challenge they face in detecting potential attacks is substantial, especially since the tactic of terrorism has increasingly been taken up by individual attackers inspired by, but not directly beholden to, formal movements. Spotting a lone wolf among the flock is no easy task, especially when it relies on a bottleneck of human analysis. A new paper in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior uses a test case of a real lone wolf attack to explore ways we may be able to deal with this in the future. Using online language analysis tools, it hunts within blocks of text for the warning signs we might otherwise miss, with the hope of helping us to more effectively detect the predator.
Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in theirnew paper inNature Human Behaviour.
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.
A timely study published in Behavioural Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression has looked into the crucial role played by the friends of would-be terrorists, in preventing their descent into radicalism.
Michael Williams and his colleagues began by interviewing over 150 law enforcement professionals, Muslim community leaders, and members of the public of various faiths in Los Angeles and Washington DC about who they thought was best placed to notice and raise concerns about a person who was considering violent extremism.
The official programmes to counter violent extremism in these neighbourhoods are well-established with communication links between local police, social services, faith-based organisations, psychological services, and so on. However, a recurring point made by the interviewees was that the people best placed to notice a person sliding to extremism are his or her friends.
A typical observation was this, from a Pakistani-American father, who said of the (in)ability of clergy and family members to spot the early signs of extremism:
“… the priest will not know [if youth are getting involved in illegal activities], because when he [the youth] goes to church, or the mosque, or the temple, he’s the finest guy. He’s on best behaviours,” and “the family is the last one to know.”
Worryingly, the interviewees also noted that there is a disconnect between these “gatekeepers” (the friends of at-risk people) and the safety networks in the community. Indeed, many of the members of the public interviewed said they would be reluctant to reach out, not just to the police, but to any of the community safety networks about their concerns. The most popular reasons given were related to fear about getting a friend or family member in trouble; concerns about getting into trouble themselves; fear that the friend would get mad at them; and concerns about being identified. Interviewees rarely said that they didn’t think it would help (to report their concerns), or that they thought they could handle the situation themselves, or that they didn’t have time.
To follow-up on this issue of fear about the consequences of raising the alarm, the researchers interviewed more community members and law enforcement professionals in the DC area, specifically in Montgomery County, Maryland, looking for factors that might exacerbate people’s fears of seeking help about a friend on the path to violent extremism. They found evidence that the more a person feared harming their relationship with the (hypothetical) at-risk friend in question, the more they voiced reluctance about the idea of raising the alarm. Interviewees spoke of concerns that the at-risk friend might feel embarrassed or looked-down upon. Another key factor was how much interviewees identified with the at-risk person – the more they identified with them, the less willing they’d be to intervene – “just because you want to protect your own,” said one police officer who was also a parent.
Williams and his team cautioned that this was exploratory, qualitative research – they sought out evidence to back up their predictions about the factors likely to be relevant. “Such findings warrant further testing,” they said, “ideally via experimental methods.” But the results do point to important practical steps, for example the need to “empower”, support and provide reassurance to gatekeepers (i.e. the friends of at-risk would-be extremists) and the need to “develop the curricula and protocols for how” people should respond when they’re concerned that a friend is being radicalised.
_________________________________ Williams, M., Horgan, J., & Evans, W. (2015). The critical role of friends in networks for countering violent extremism: toward a theory of vicarious help-seeking Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 1-21 DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2015.1101147
In the wake of a report published yesterday into the CIA’s use of torture, many people are shocked and appalled. Yet one defence of the practice remains popular – “the ticking time bomb scenario”.
This is the idea that torture is justified if a suspect knows the location of bomb in a public place, and many lives would be saved if he or she were coerced into telling authorities the location in time for it to be deactivated. The new Senate Intelligence Committee report describes how the ticking time bomb scenario was in fact used by the CIA to defend its use of torture or “enhanced interrogation”.
The ticking time bomb scenario is usually presented as a “utilitarian” argument for the moral good of torture in certain circumstances, when one person’s suffering is preferable to the deaths of many. Some commenters have gone as far as claiming that most people endorse torture in the ticking bomb situation.
A new study puts this to the test. Joseph Spino and Denise Cummins surveyed hundreds of people online asking them for their views about the acceptability and appropriateness of torturing a suspect in variations of the classic ticking bomb scenario. In particular the researchers were interested in whether people’s views vary according to changes in the “hidden assumptions” with which the scenario is loaded.
The researchers found that people’s endorsement of torturing a suspect is reduced when they are told that torture is likely to be ineffective (which, by the way, is true), and when they are told other interrogative methods are available. The researchers also found that people’s support for torture increased when they were told the suspect was a terrorist, or that the suspect was guilty of actually planting the bomb. People’s increased support in this context was not because they thought the suspect was more likely to hold information about the bomb. This suggests that the participants’ endorsement of torture was based on retribution, rather than being a cool utilitarian judgment.
Spino and Cummins said their results show that people’s support for torture in the ticking time bomb situation depends on a “highly idealised” and “highly unrealistic” set of assumptions being met. Moreover, their finding that people’s support for torture is influenced by the identity and the culpability of the suspect shows that the practice is often endorsed as a form of punishment, not as a way to extract information. Taken altogether the researchers conclude their findings “cast serious doubt on the use of ticking time bomb scenarios as an argument for legalized torture”.
_________________________________ Spino, J., & Cummins, D. (2014). The Ticking Time Bomb: When the Use of Torture Is and Is Not Endorsed Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 5 (4), 543-563 DOI: 10.1007/s13164-014-0199-y
Today the UK and its allies are at war with an extremist group based in Syria and Iraq that calls itself the Islamic State (IS; a name rejected by mainstream Muslim organisations). The group declared a caliphate in June this year and is seeking to expand its territory.
Amnesty International has accused IS of war crimes including ethnic cleansing, torture, abductions, sexual violence and the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Prime Minister Cameron has branded the group “evil” and says they “pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology.”
Many of the fighters of the Islamic State are Western citizens. Indeed, this week there were reports that a fourth jihadist from Portsmouth, England, has died fighting for the Islamic State.
Never has it been more urgent that we understand why people are drawn to extremist beliefs and to violent extremist organisations. Here the Research Digest provides a brief overview of the psychological research and theories that help explain the lure of extremism. Continue reading “The psychology of violent extremism – digested”→