The moral judgement of terrorists

Terrorists have an abnormal overreliance on outcomes when making moral judgements.

In a new Nature Human Behaviour study, researchers conducted psychological and cognitive tests on 66 Colombian right-wing paramilitaries who were imprisoned for committing terrorist acts. All were convicted of murder and had killed a mean of 33 people. The results of the study suggest that a terrorist’s moral code places much more weight on ends over means. We spoke with two of the study’s authors Agustin Ibanez and Adolfo M. García to find out more.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Agustín Ibáñez & Adolfo García: Within a given social group, moral norms emerge from conventionally accepted values that guide adaptive behavior. In this sense, moral judgment is a useful proxy to understand critical aspects of deviant social practices, such as those characterizing terrorists. In judging the morality of an action, civilized individuals typically attach greater importance to intentions than outcomes: actions aimed to induce harm, regardless of their success, are usually deemed less morally permissible than those in which harm was neither intended nor inflicted, or merely accidental.

Extreme terrorists could be characterized by abnormal forms of moral cognition, arguably shaped by their particular cultural environments. Specifically, if terrorists deem it morally appropriate to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of an aim, their moral judgments may be critically rooted in the success of an action rather than the probity of its underlying intention. By exploring this possibility, our study shows how cognitive science can contribute to ongoing multidisciplinary efforts to understand the atrocities of terrorism.

RG: What did you discover?

Ibáñez & García: Multiple studies across the world have systematically shown that, in judging the morality of an action, civilized individuals typically attach greater importance to intentions than outcomes: if an action is aimed to induce harm, it does not matter whether it was successful or not: most people consider it as less morally admissible than other actions in which harm was neither intended nor inflicted, or even actions in which harm was caused by accident. This is called “harm magnification effect”. Conversely, we found that terrorists, in comparison to non-criminals, found attempted harm to be more permissible and accidental to be less permissible. Moreover, they were more poignant in their moral condemnation of accidental harm than attempted harm.

RG: How did you discover this?

Ibáñez & García: We study cognitive and affective processes in multiple neuropsychiatric conditions from the perspective of social neuroscience. We are especially interested in how the context modulates social cognition processes, in general, and moral cognition, in particular. But how are the contextual clues shaped by sociocultural backgrounds of extreme violence? We began to think that contextual cognition can be affected not only by an underlying pathological process (such as neurodegeneration) but also by sociocultural backgrounds. In fact, research on social psychology has shown that in particular social scenarios, “normal” people can act in a very a-social or even antisocial manner. The Colombian conflict represents a unique opportunity to assess the effects of social context in the manifestation of dehumanization behavior and its related moral cognition processes. We worked for over four years to reach this unique population.

RG: Can you tell us a bit about the terrorists you studied?

Ibáñez & García: They were incarcerated members of an illegal armed paramilitary group, designated as a terrorist organization by multiple countries and organizations. They participated in a collective demobilization from 2003 to 2006, formally supported by the Colombian statutory law. This law replaces existing sentences by five to eight years of imprisonment for members who meet demobilizing requirements. During their participation in armed right-wing paramilitary groups, all 66 terrorists in our sample had committed murders (with a mean of 33 victims per subject), and most of them had committed several massacres, sometimes involving hundreds of victims. They also confessed to other crimes, including theft, kidnapping, and fraud. These individuals had not participated in any rehabilitation or reinsertion program. Also, each of them was screened to exclude neurological and psychiatric disorders as well as drug consumption habits.

RG: Do you think the moral judgments they made are representative of other terrorist groups too? If so, in what way?

Ibáñez & García: The response depends on which level of analysis is considered (that is, whether we focus on gross or fine-grain perspectives). At a global level, the size, timing, and other macro-features of violent events of Colombia are comparable with those of countries with the highest terrorist levels. Collective human activities like violence have been shown to exhibit universal patterns (e.g., decision making processes of self-organized groups, or connections between human insurgency, global terrorism, and ecology). But at a fine-grained level, the Colombian conflict seems to be unique. The tripartite fight among militaries, paramilitaries, and guerrilla; the mixture of liberal and conservative political positions involved in the conflict; and the blending of the civil population as well as drug traffickers in these conflicts made the Colombian scenario a unique and very complex phenomenon. Whether this abnormal pattern of moral cognition should be observed among other terrorist groups (ISIS and Al-Queda) is a yet unanswered question.

RG: What role does religion play in the moral judgement of terrorism?

Ibáñez & García: In this population, religion does not seem to be a relevant factor. Indeed, the impact of ideological position at large seems to have only a partial impact. Most ex-combatants in Colombia joined paramilitary groups for economic reasons, since they were paid a salary. Only approximately 13 percent of ex-combatants had an ideological motivation for joining the paramilitary group. Thus, it is unlikely that terrorist and other criminal acts (massacres, murder, theft, kidnapping, and fraud) committed by these individuals were guided purely by their ideological convictions. Consistently, social sciences theories suggest that ideology and action are sometimes connected, but not always.  Many terrorists are not ideologues or deep believers in an extremist doctrine.

RG: Do you think your results could help us prevent terrorism? If so, how?

Ibáñez & García: Future studies should test the predictive value of moral judgment and other social-cognitive tasks to identify dangerous insurgent individuals. In this sense, further cross-sectional and longitudinal studies are needed to test the predictive value of moral cognition tasks in the assessment of future aggressive behavior and social adaptation. Since the terrorists we assessed exhibited skewed moral judgments, emotion recognition impairments, and high levels of aggression, it may be worth planning psychological or socio-cognitive interventions and monitoring programs on them upon release, especially considering the high levels of relapse reported among demobilized paramilitaries. This would be a cautionary measure, of course. Also, further studies could examine whether the moral judgment of terrorists changes during imprisonment or after release.

Image courtesy of Stephane333.

The main institutions supporting this study: In Argentina (Ineco Foundation, Favaloro University, and CONICET), Colombia (Universidad Autónoma del Caribe, Universidad de los Andes, ICESI University), Chile (Universidad Adolfo Ibanez), and the USA (Boston College).