The Minds and Actions of Devoted Actors and the Will to Fight: A Behavioral and Brain Studies Approach to War and Extreme Group Conflict

September 2023 No Comments

Speaker: Dr. Scott Atran (University of Michigan)

Date: 12 September 2023

Speaker Session Summary

What drives warfighters to make costly sacrifices—including their lives—is a long-standing question that military and civilian leaders have tried to answer. Dr. Atran explained that this question can be studied through two different psychological models: 1) rational choice theory and 2) the devoted actor model. He argued that the devoted actor model is most suitable when assessing why people are willing to make costly sacrifices. When fighters decide that they are ready to freely give their lives, it is rarely a rational decision. Instead, it is a result of their devotion to the values that they hold most sacred. Understanding an individual’s sacred values is contingent on many factors, including how fused that individual’s identity is to that of a group. Individuals whose identities are completely fused with that of a single group are the most likely to give their lives in support of that group’s values.

Dr. Atran used several methods to collect data on and study warfighters, refugees, and terrorists in his research. These methods include random surveys, field studies, and laboratory studies. The findings from the surveys were backed by neural scans administered while conducting some of the interviews. Dr. Atran observed that the brain activity during these scans vastly increased when subjects discussed values that they personally considered to be sacred. Dr. Atran emphasized that members whose identities are completely fused with that of their organization were also much less likely to change their beliefs. This finding was apparent when studying prisoners who were members of a jihadi group when compared to prisoners who were ordinary members of society. Those who were members of a jihadi group prior to their incarceration rarely changed their worldviews and beliefs, while other prisoners regularly experienced large changes in their belief systems while being incarcerated. Dr. Atran also highlighted what he believed to be a miscalculation of the will to fight in US fighters versus that of jihadists. US fighters’ and fighters from other Western countries’ will to fight are directly influenced by firepower and manpower. Most military leaders assume that this is true for all militaries; however, members of ISIL and other highly religious military organizations often believe that fighters’ spiritual formability is more important during a fight than that military’s firepower. Ultimately, fusion with the identity of a group, trust in leadership, spiritual formidability, and trust in the group were found to increase fighters’ willingness to make costly sacrifices, including their own and their family’s lives. 

Speaker Session Recording

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Biography: Dr. Scott Atran is an anthropologist known for his work on the importance of “devoted actors” in cultural, political, and religious conflicts, and for studies on indigenous environmental management and the transcultural cognitive foundations of biological classification. He received a BA from Columbia College, MA from Johns Hopkins, and a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University after time spent as a Fulbright Scholar in the Middle East and a researcher at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Atran is co-founder and science director at Artis International, a research institute conducting field studies in distressed world regions and developing online tools for managing socio-political conflict and competition. He is co-founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict and Research Fellow for the Changing Character of War Centre at Oxford University; Research Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and Institute for Social Research; and Emeritus Research Director in Anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He has advised and addressed the UN Security Council on issues of “Youth, Peace, and Security” and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Atran’s books include Talking to the Enemy, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and The Native Mind: Cognition and Culture in Human Knowledge of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin).


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