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.”
RELATED: Deciphering Our Murderous Thoughts Could Help Reduce Crime
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.