Study of Convicted Terrorists Reveals Deviant Moral Judgment

Released following the deadly Manchester Arena bombing, a psychological study of convicted terrorists shows how their moral code differs from those of other people.

Nearly all terrorist acts, from the tragic bombing that killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena this month to the cold-blooded murder in 2015 of eight parishioners and a pastor at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, require calculated steps and some sort of justification — however horrifically evil and skewed — in the mind of the perpetrator.

To better understand this mindset, an international team of experts in psychology and cognitive neuroscience recently studied 66 convicted male terrorists, with an average of 33 victims per subject. Some of the men participated in massacres with death tolls exceeding 600.

The men were all Colombian right-wing paramilitaries who were imprisoned for committing terrorist acts before being freed last year. The researchers put them through a battery of cognitive and psychological tests, the results of which are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

Co-author Adolfo García of Favaloro University in Argentina explained that Colombia has one of the world’s highest levels of terrorism.

“Since the late 1990s, roughly 70,000 people in this country have been killed by terrorists, and thousands more have been kidnapped, tortured, or otherwise violated,” he said.

García, lead author Sandra Baez, and their colleagues assessed the moral cognition, IQ, aggressive behavior, and emotion recognition of the 66 convicted terrorists, as well as basic executive skills such as planning, memory, attention, and multitasking. The tests that the researchers administered were given to a control group of 66 people with social and demographic backgrounds that were similar to those of the convicted terrorists, but who never committed any crimes.

The results showed no significant differences in intelligence, verbal skills, or basic cognitive functions between the two study groups. The convicted terrorists did exhibit higher levels of aggression and lower levels of emotion recognition than non-terrorists.

The most striking difference, however, concerned moral judgment. The test results show that the terrorists failed to integrate intentions and outcomes in the way that the control group members did. The terrorist moral code instead prioritizes ends over means.

Consider the following fictional scenario that was included in the tests:

            Grace and her friend are taking a tour of a chemical plant. When
            Grace goes over to the coffee machine to pour some coffee, Grace’s
            friend asks for some sugar in hers. There is white powder in a container
            by the coffee. The white powder is a very toxic one left behind by a
            scientist, and therefore deadly when ingested in any form. The container
            is labelled ‘sugar,’ so Grace believes that the white powder by the coffee
            is sugar left out by the kitchen staff. Grace puts the substance in her
            friend’s coffee. Her friend drinks the coffee and dies.

The researchers then varied this scenario, changing the intentions and outcomes. For example, in one version of the fictional tale, Grace knows that the white powder is toxic, yet she still gives it to her friend.

Time and again, the terrorists judged intentional harm as more permissible and morally just than accidental harm. Terrorist logic holds that the ends, no matter how horrific, justify the means. The test results as a whole, therefore, provide evidence that distorted moral cognition is a hallmark of the terrorist mindset.   

“Terrorists’ outcome-based moral judgments may reflect the conviction that any action is justifiable as long as it favors the accomplishment of an aim,” senior author Agustín Ibáñez of Favaloro University explained. “Sociological studies emphasize such a deviant moral tendency as a prominent trait in terrorists. If the actions of terrorists follow from their underlying moral cognition, that means they will prioritize the results of the outcomes over conventional moral values.”

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He noted that terrorists “consider it morally appropriate to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of an aim, even when this aim contradicts normative values.”

The study supports the theory that terrorists suppress instinctive and learned moral constraints — such as empathy, fairness, and pro-sociality — against harming innocent others. This can happen even in individuals with well-above-average IQs.

Intriguingly, there is little evidence that all terrorists are psychopaths. Not all psychopaths are involved in criminal behaviors, for example, and no conclusive evidence links such traits with terrorism.

“Terrorism and radicalism are multi-factorial phenomena molded by group dynamics, biological predispositions, cultural constraints, and socio-psychological factors,” Ibáñez said. “It may even be the case that this abnormal form of moral cognition is the result of participating in terrorist practices.”

A controversial resolution released by an American Psychological Association task force a few years ago suggests that such participation might include playing violent video games, which have been linked to increases in aggressive behavior in some individuals and decreases in empathy and sensitivity to aggression. Adam Lanza, the shooter responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, frequently played both violent and non-violent video games.

An opinion piece about the “jihadi state of mind” published in the New York Times following the Manchester bombing argues that certain social changes may also contribute to the rise of a terrorist perspective across different cultures.

“The influence of civil society institutions that help create social bonds, from churches to labor unions, has eroded. So has that of the progressive movements that used to give social grievance a political form,” wrote Kenan Malik, a former research psychologist who studied neurobiology. “Cracks now exist in which are spawned angry individuals, inhabiting a space beyond normal moral boundaries. There, they may find in Islamism or white nationalism the salve for their demons and a warped vindication for their actions.”

The situation in Colombia is particularly challenging because involvement in guerrilla or paramilitary warfare is often forced. Participants frequently come from extreme poverty and have little formal education. Many of the 66 convicted terrorists who participated in the study had experienced or witnessed sexual and childhood abuses.

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While certain aspects of the problems in Colombia are unique, such as its political dynamics and the impact of illegal drug trafficking, terrorist acts in that country share similarities in many ways to those of other countries.

“At a global level, the size, timing and other macro-features of violent events of Colombia are comparable with those of countries with similar terrorist levels,” Ibáñez said. “Collective human activities like violence have been shown to exhibit universal-like patterns.”

Because of the determination that terrorists exhibit skewed moral judgments, have high levels of aggression, and possess emotion recognition impairments, the researchers believe that these individuals should be closely monitored after their release from prison — that is, if they ever are released — especially in light of numerous reported relapses, at least among demobilized paramilitaries. Ibáñez and his colleagues do, however, believe that psychological and social-cognitive therapies may benefit such individuals.

The research team is currently studying both victims and victimizers within armed conflicts in Colombia. They are also beginning to assess children who are living under the violent conditions of guerrilla warfare. In the future, they hope further studies will examine whether the moral judgment of a terrorist changes during imprisonment or after release.

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