Humans often make their greatest exertions and sacrifices, including killing or dying for ill or good, not just to preserve their own lives or kin and kith, but for an idea – the abstract conception they form of themselves, of “who I am” and ”who we are”. For most of human history, and for most cultural groups, religion has been the locus of this privilege and power of absurdity. Our research shows that the interaction of two largely independent psycho-social phenomena maximize willingness to sacrifice among what I call ”Devoted Actors”: commitment to sacred values that are immune to material tradeoffs and to temporal and spatial discounting, and identity fusion of the individual into a unique reference group that empowers all with a sentiment of collective invincibility and deep in-group love. The interaction of sacred values and identity fusion, wherein close comrades are joined together in a sacred cause from which there is no exit, gives them a sense of special destiny and the will to fight against any odds. That is what enables initially low-power insurgent and revolutionary groups to resist and often prevail against materially more powerful foes who depend on material incentives, such as armies and police that rely mainly on pay and promotion rather than heartfelt duty to defend the nation. Sacred values must be fought with other sacred values, or by sundering the social networks in which those values are embedded.
About the Speaker:
Professor Scott Atran, PhD, received his BA and PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. He is currently Research Director of ARTIS International, Research Professor and Presidential Scholar, Center on Terrorism, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Visiting Professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He is tenured as Research Director in Anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, and he is also Senior Fellow and co-founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts at Harris Manchester College and the Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford. He has repeatedly briefed NATO and members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House. He has worked with the UN Security Council on problems relating to youth and violent extremism and he has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East.