Scott Atran

Scott Atran
French National Centre for Scientific Research | CNRS · French National Centre for Scientific Research

PhD

About

261
Publications
82,999
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Introduction
Scott Atran is emeritus research director in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), co-founder of ARTIS International, research professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Michigan, and founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (University of Oxford). He experiments on ways scientists and ordinary people categorise and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. Scott has interviewed the leadership and members of insurgent and extremist groups. He has briefed NATO, National Security Council staff at the White House, Congress, UK & EU parliaments, UN Security Council, World Economic Forum among others.
Additional affiliations
October 2011 - present
University of Oxford
Position
  • Senior Researcher
September 2006 - September 2016
January 2006 - present
ARTIS International
Position
  • Research Director
Education
September 1974 - January 1984
Columbia University
Field of study
  • Anthropology
September 1972 - June 1973
Johns Hopkins University
Field of study
  • Social Relations
September 1969 - June 1972
Columbia University
Field of study
  • Anthropology

Publications

Publications (261)
Conference Paper
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How a State actor manipulates cognitive and cultural biases to influence important political and policy decisions by other States.
Article
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Is terrorism just another form of criminal activity, as many nations' justice systems assume? We offer an initial answer using face-to-face interviews and structured surveys in thirty-five Spanish prisons. Recent theories of extreme sacrifice inform this direct observational and comparative study. Islamist terrorists display levels of self-sacrific...
Article
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Across 11 studies involving six countries from four continents ( n = 3,285), we extend insights from field investigations in conflict zones to offline and online surveys to show that personal spiritual formidability—the conviction and immaterial resources (values, strengths of beliefs, character) of a person to fight—is positively associated with t...
Article
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As the Taliban rapidly crushed US-backed Afghan forces, many politicians, pundits, and military leaders expressed surprise at having overestimated an ally’s will to fight and underestimated the enemy’s. Similarly in 2014, after the Islamic State (ISIS) routed US-backed Iraqi forces, President Obama endorsed the intelligence assessment that “predict...
Article
Fear of transnational terrorism, along with a revitalization of sectarian nationalism, is sundering social and political consensus across the world. Can psychology help? The focus of this review is on the psychological and related social factors that instigate and sustain violent extremism and polarizing group conflict. I first describe the changin...
Article
Devoted actors—those who share sacred values with a group with which they are fused—are particularly willing to self-sacrifice to defend their group or values when they are threatened. Here, we explore whether they are also prone to aggressive inclinations toward those who endanger their group or convictions. To that end, we examined the effect of...
Article
The aim and effect of transnational terrorism today – stemming from both Islamic revivalism and ethno-nationalist resurgence – is to fragment social consensus by forcing people into opposing camps, with no room for innocents. Governments and peoples wrestle with why this is happening and what to do. At issue here: Can social science, specifically p...
Article
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Scholars and policymakers have long sought to determine what drives people to keep fighting when the chips are down, and, if need be, to give their lives to a cause. Traditional explanations, based on rational choice theory or focused on mental abnormalities, have largely failed to explain what motivates the members of extremist insurgent movements...
Article
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What impelled the Industrial Revolution's spectacular economic growth? Life History Theory, Baumard argues, explains how England's world-supreme affluence psychologically fostered innovation; moreover, wherever similar affluence abounds, a “civilizing process” bringing enlightenment and democracy is apt to evolve. Baumard insightfully analyzes a “c...
Preprint
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What impelled the industrial revolution's spectacular economic growth? Life History Theory, Baumard argues, explains how England's world-supreme affluence psychologically fostered innovation; moreover, wherever similar affluence abounds, a "civilizing process" bringing enlightenment and democracy is apt to evolve. Baumard insightfully analyzes a "c...
Article
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Chapman & Huffman (C & H) contend that, as with all biological traits, there is evolutionary continuity underlying cognitive and social traits previously thought to be unique to humans. Yet C & H, like Darwin, appeal to a seemingly unique moral aptitude that enables humans to be kind to conspecific strangers and other species.
Article
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Violent intergroup conflicts are often motivated by commitments to abstract ideals such as god or nation, so-called ‘sacred’ values that are insensitive to material trade-offs. There is scant knowledge of how the brain processes costly sacrifices for such cherished causes. We studied willingness to fight and die for sacred values using fMRI in Barc...
Article
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Willingness to fight and die (WFD) has been developed as a measure to capture willingness to incur costly sacrifices for the sake of a greater cause in the context of entrenched conflict. WFD measures have been repeatedly used in field studies, including studies on the battlefield, although their neurofunctional correlates remain unexplored. Our ai...
Article
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French president Emmanuel Macron’s claim that society needs religion is explored in the light of rising populism and illiberalism, and failures allied to the forced gamble of globalization. Historical and experimental research indicates that the universal religions have no fixed meanings or essences that drive followers. Religions have adapted to m...
Article
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Violent extremism is often explicitly motivated by commitment to abstract ideals such as the nation or divine law – so-called “sacred” values that are relatively insensitive to material incentives and define our primary reference groups. Moreover, extreme pro-group behavior seems to intensify after social exclusion. This fMRI study explores underly...
Article
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Interest in the dynamics of intergroup conflict continues to rise within and beyond anthropology. The cognitive and evolutionary sciences can help us better understand the ubiquity and causal dynamics of intergroup conflict by demonstrating the existence of, first, psychological adaptations for intragroup cooperation and intergroup conflict and, se...
Article
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CTC SENTINEL 15 After expulsion of Islamic State forces from Mosul, Iraq's government declared the country "fully liberated" and the Islamic State "defeated." But field interviews and non-threatening psychological experiments with young Sunni Arab men from the Mosul area indicate that the Islamic State may have lost its "caliphate," but not necessa...
Article
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Why do some individuals willingly make extreme sacrifices for their group? Whitehouse argues that such willingness stems from a visceral feeling of oneness with the group – identity fusion – that emerges from intense, shared dysphoric experiences or from perceived close kinship with others. Although Whitehouse's argument makes a valuable contributi...
Article
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Frontline investigations with fighters against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), combined with multiple online studies, address willingness to fight and die in intergroup conflict. The general focus is on non-utilitarian aspects of human conflict, which combatants themselves deem ‘sacred’ or ‘spiritual’, whether secular or religious. Here we invest...
Chapter
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INTRODUCTION: THE DEVOTED ACTOR “The Devoted Actor” is a theoretical framework developed by a group of scholars and policymakers at ARTIS International – a nonprofit group that uses social science research to help resolve seemingly intractable political and cultural conflicts – to better understand the social and psychological mechanisms underlying...
Article
Despite intense efforts by intelligence agencies and countless conferences, articles and books, fundamental aspects of terrorism remain unclear: what identifies terrorists before they act; how do they radicalize; what motivates their violence; when do they act; what countermeasures are most effective? These efforts have underperformed in part becau...
Article
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Rather than reflecting a movement in decline, the Nice attack may be nest understood as a recalibration of long-endorsed tactics in the service of an overriding strategy of world revolution. Even if ISIS loses all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, the global jihadi archipelago could continue to endure and expand if the social and political condit...
Article
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Au nord de l’Irak, une bataille sans merci a lieu pour le contrôle du village de Kudilah. Elle en dit long sur l’avenir du conflit. (Partie 1)
Article
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Au nord de l'Irak, une bataille sans merci a lieu pour le contrôle du village de Kudilah. Elle en dit long sur l'avenir du conflit. (Partie 2) LISEZ ICI LA PREMIÈRE PARTIE DE L'HISTOIRE (http://www.ulyces.co/scott-atran/sur-le-front-irakien-qui-se-bat-contre-quiet -pourquoi/)
Article
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This report presents two studies in very different contexts that provide convergent empirical evidence for the “devoted actor” hypothesis: people will become willing to protect nonnegotiable sacred values through costly sacrifice and extreme actions when such values are associated with groups whose individual members fuse into a unique collective i...
Article
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Uncompromising wars, revolution, rights movements, and today’s global terrorism are in part driven by “devoted actors” who adhere to sacred, transcendent values that generate actions dissociated fromrationally expected risks and rewards. Studies in real-world conflicts show ways that devoted actors, who are unconditionally committed to sacred cause...
Article
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Dans ce long texte, l'anthropologue Scott Atran, spécialiste du terrorisme, explique pourquoi, en fermant les yeux sur la capacité d'attraction de l'EI, l'Occident commet une erreur stratégique majeure.
Article
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Today's major religions are moralizing religions that encourage material sacrifice for spiritual rewards. A key issue is whether moralizing religions gradually evolved over several millennia to enable cooperation among genetic strangers in the spiraling competition between increasingly large groups occupying Eurasia's middle latitudes, or whether t...
Article
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Religious belief is often seen as a key cause of human conflict because it is said to promote preferential treatment of adherents and to harden group boundaries. Here, we examined a critical aspect of this link in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a multigenerational violent conflict with significant religious aspects. We find that a...
Chapter
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This book chapter gives an overview over experiments and fieldwork in many hotspots around the world, which show that most dangerous and effective terrorists today are 'Devoted Actors.' They are motivated by their commitment to sacred values and the groups they are fighting for. Devoted actors are particularly likely to engage in extreme actions (l...
Article
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We explore how Darwinian notions of moral virtue and parochial altruism may relate to the emerging cognitive framework of the devoted actor who undertakes extreme actions in defense of group values. After a brief discussion of the theoretical framework, we present exploratory data resulting from interviews of 62 Lebanese individuals of varying reli...
Article
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This report provides initial evidence that “devoted actors” who are unconditionally committed to a sacred cause, as well as to their comrades, willingly make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. Although American military analysts since WWII tend to attribute fighting spirit to leadership and the bond of comradeship in combat as a manif...
Article
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"The contents of this paper reflect some of the work that Dr. Cabayan and his colleagues are doing to help us understand and comprehend this “intangible power” across a unique enterprise of academicians, scientists, policy intellectuals, current and former Foreign Service, military, and intelligence professionals. Most importantly, their efforts to...
Article
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Lankford overgeneralizes individual psychology from limited, fragmentary and doubtful materials, and underplays strategic, ideological, and group dynamical factors. His speculative claims manifest a form of fundamental attribution error: the tendency - especially evident in popular attachment to moral presumptions of individual responsibility and v...
Article
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This study reports ethnographic and experimental analyses of inter-generational changes in native Itza' Maya and immigrant Ladino populations of Guatemala's Petén rainforest concerning understanding of ecological relationships between plants, animals, and humans, and the perceived role of forest spirits in sustaining these relationships. We find dr...
Article
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Conflicts over sacred values may be particularly difficult to resolve. Because sacred values are nonfungible with material values, standard attempts to negotiate, such as offering material incentives to compromise, often backfire, increasing moral outrage and support for violent action. We present studies with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza...
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Baumard et al. attribute morality to a naturally selected propensity to share costs and benefits of cooperation fairly. But how does mundane mutualism relate to transcendent notions of morality critical to creating cultures and civilizations? Humans often make their greatest exertions for an idea they form of their group. Primary social identity is...
Article
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Religion, in promoting outlandish beliefs and costly rituals, increases ingroup trust but also may increase mistrust and conflict with outgroups. Moralizing gods emerged over the last few millennia, enabling large-scale cooperation, and sociopolitical conquest even without war. Whether for cooperation or conflict, sacred values, like devotion to Go...
Article
The article describes challenges to comparative risk assessment, a key approach for managing uncertainty in decision making, across diverse threats such as terrorism and climate change and argues new approaches will be particularly important in addressing decisions related to sustainability.
Article
Society has difficult decisions to make about how best to allocate its resources to ensure future sustainability. Risk assessment can be a valuable tool: it has long been used to support decisions to address environmental problems. But in a time when the risks to sustainability range from climate change to terrorism, applying risk assessment to sus...
Article
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Fincher & Thornhill's (F&T's) central hypothesis is that strong in-group norms were formed in part to foster parochial social alliances so as to enable cultural groups to adaptively respond to parasite stress. Applied to ancestral hominid environments, the story fits with evolutionary theory and the fragmentary data available on early hominid socia...
Article
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Although culture is usually thought of as the collection of knowledge and traditions that are transmitted outside of biology, evidence continues to accumulate showing how biology and culture are inseparably intertwined. Cultural conflict will occur only when the beliefs and traditions of one cultural group represent a challenge to individuals of an...
Article
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Sacred values, such as those associated with religious or ethnic identity, underlie many important individual and group decisions in life, and individuals typically resist attempts to trade off their sacred values in exchange for material benefits. Deontological theory suggests that sacred values are processed based on rights and wrongs irrespectiv...
Article
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Sacred or protected values have important influences on decision making, particularly in the context of intergroup disputes. Thus far, we know little about the process of a value becoming sacred or why one person may be more likely than another to hold a sacred value. We present evidence that participation in religious ritual and perceived threat t...
Article
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Why do people decide to sacrifice their own lives - the totality of their self-interests - in acts of extreme violence against others? A standard assumption of policymakers and researchers on war and terrorism is that decisions to support or oppose warfare are made in an instrumentally rational manner and thus driven by cost-benefit calculations. B...
Article
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The idea that people inevitably act in accordance with their self-interest on the basis of a calculation of costs and benefits does not constitute an adequate framework for understanding political acts of violence and self-sacrifice. Recent research suggests that a better understanding is needed of how sacred values and notions of self and group id...
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We present findings from one survey and five experiments carried out in the USA, Nigeria and the Middle East showing that judgements about the use of deadly intergroup violence are strikingly insensitive to quantitative indicators of success, or to perceptions of their efficacy. By demonstrating that judgements about the use of war are bounded by r...
Chapter
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Since the invasion of Iraq, and with the rapid spread of Internet access, the world has witnessed a more egalitarian, less-educated and less materially well-off, and more socially marginalized wave of would-be jihadi martyrs. Although millions of people support violent jihad, very few are willing to do it. Those who do pursue violent jihad usually...
Article
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Conflict over Iran's nuclear program, which involves a US-led policy to impose sanctions on Iran, is perceived by each side as a preeminent challenge to its own national security and global peace. Yet, there is little scientific study or understanding of how material incentives and disincentives, such as economic sanctions, psychologically aff...
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NOT all groups that the United States government classifies as terrorist organizations are equally bad or dangerous, and not all information conveyed to them that is based on political, academic or scientific expertise risks harming our national security. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court, which last week upheld a law banning the provision of “mater...
Article
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Afghanistan is not like Iraq. What may work well in Iraq, or elsewhere, may not be a wise policy in Afghanistan. The original alliance between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was largely one of convenience between a poverty-stricken national movement and a transnational cause that brought material help. Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are interested in their...
Article
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Humankind faces a wide range of threats to its security and safety, from terrorist groups and cybercriminals to disease pandemics and climate change. All these threats share one characteristic: they are constantly changing. Decision-makers can never be sure whether the next tropical storm will be as violent as the last, or whether Taliban insurgent...
Article
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The great British biologist J.B.S Haldane counted monotheism's creation of fanaticism as one of the most important inventions of the last 5,000 years. Call it love of God or love of group, it matters little in the end. Modern civilizations spin the potter's wheel of monotheism to manufacture the greatest cause of all, humanity. Before missionary mo...
Article
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We are fixated on technology and technological success, and we have no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries' motivation, intent, will, and the dreams that drive their strategic vision, however strange those dreams and vision may seem to us.
Article
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Understanding religion requires explaining why supernatural beliefs, devotions, and rituals are both universal and variable across cultures, and why religion is so often associated with both large-scale cooperation and enduring group conflict. Emerging lines of research suggest that these oppositions result from the convergence of three processes....
Article
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On December 14-16, 2009, a delegation from the World Federation of Scientists, including the authors, traveled to Damascus to interview senior Syrian and Palestinian leaders from Syria and various Palestinian factions, including the members of the leadership of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The objective was to gain i...
Article
Full-text available
Since the invasion of Iraq, and with the rapid spread of Internet access, the world has witnessed a more egalitarian, less-educated and -materially well off, and more socially marginalized wave of would-be jihadi martyrs. Although millions of people support violent jihad, very few are willing to do it. Those who do pursue violent jihad usually emer...
Article
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We present evidence of noninstrumental reasoning over sacred values from field experiments in real world conflicts. We argue that claims to sacred or protected values are not claims to infinite utility, as people can and do order their preferences for different values they hold sacred. Instead, sacred values are defined by a taboo against measuring...
Article
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AS diplomats stitch together a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, the most depressing feature of the conflict is the sense that future fighting is inevitable. Rational calculation suggests that neither side can win these wars. The thousands of lives and billions of dollars sacrificed in fighting demonstrate the advantages of peace and coexistence...
Article
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Now we need to bring this perspective to Afghanistan and Pakistan — one that is smart about cultures, customs and connections. The present policy of focusing on troop strength and drones, and trying to win over people by improving their lives with Western-style aid programs, only continues a long history of foreign involvement and failure. Reading...
Article
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Sacred values are different from secular values in that they are often associated with violations of the cost-benefit logic of rational choice models. Previous work on sacred values has been largely limited to religious or territorial conflicts deeply embedded in historical contexts. In this work we find that the Iranian nuclear program, a relative...