Scott Atran
“Identity Fusion and Group Dynamics”
Part 4 of “The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across
Cultures” appears below. To read the complete article including footnotes, click here.
     • To read Part 1, “The Devoted Actor,” click here.
     • To read Part 2, “Sacred Values,” click here.
     • To read Part 3, “Mobilizing to Protect Cherished Values,” click here.
Address to UN Security Council by Scott Atran
Address to UN Security Council
Talking to the Enemy
His book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists is available from Amazon.

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The Importance of Identity Fusion and Group Dynamics

Our fieldwork with captured and would-be suicide terrorists and political and militant leaders and supporters in violent conflict situations suggests that some behaviors that punctuate the history of human intergroup conflict do indeed go beyond instrumental concerns. Historical examples include the self-sacrifice of Spartans at Thermopylae, the Jewish Zealots in revolt against Rome, defenders of the Alamo, the Waffen SS “volunteer death squads” during the Soviet siege of Budapest, some cohorts of Japanese Kamikaze, and the jihadi pilot bombers of 9/11.

Such events exemplify that humans fight and kill in the name of abstract, often ineffable values such as God, national destiny, or salvation. Ever since World War II, on average, revolutionary movements have emerged victorious with as little as 10 times less firepower and manpower than the state forces arrayed against them.

Although sacred values may operate as necessary moral imperatives to action, they are not sufficient. Group morality does not operate simply from ideological canon or decontextualized principles that drive decisions and actions, but it is almost always embedded and distributed in social groups, most effectively in intimate networks of “imagined kin.” Knowledge of the moral imperatives that drive people to great exertions toward one political goal or another as well as the group dynamics that bind individuals to sacrifice for one another in the name of those values both appear indispensable to extreme actions where prospects of defeat and death are very high, as with terrorism and revolution.

Thus, our working hypothesis is that extreme parochially altruistic action occurs and devoted acts are created when self-identity becomes fused with a unique collective identity and when identity itself is fused with sacred values that provide all group members a similar sense of significance. Important values may influence extreme behavior particularly to the extent that they become embedded or fused with identity and internalized. When internalized, important moral values lessen societal costs of policing morality through self-monitoring and blind members to exit strategies.

There is more to group dynamics than just collections of people, their behavior, and ideas. There is also the web of relationships that make the group more than the sum of its individual members; White and Johansen). It is this networking among members that distributes thoughts and tasks that no one part may completely control or even understand. Case studies of suicide terrorism and related forms of violent extremism suggest that “people almost never kill and die [just] for the Cause, but for each other: for their group, whose cause makes their imagined family of genetic strangers—their brotherhood, fatherland, motherland, homeland.”

In this vein, the theory of “identity fusion” (Swann et al.) holds that when people’s collective identities become fused with their personal self-concept, they subsequently display increased willingness to engage in extreme progroup behavior when the group is threatened. As such, fusion can help us better understand part of the complexity of group dynamics that leads to action when privileged values are threatened.

Fusion theory differs from various social identity theories in emphasizing group cohesion through social networking and emotional bonding of people and values rather than through processes of categorization and association, thus empowering individuals and their groups with sentiments of exceptional destiny and invulnerability.

In recent cross-cultural experiments, Swann et al. find that when fused people perceive that group members share core physical attributes and values, they are more likely to project familial ties common in smaller groups onto the extended group. This enhances willingness to fight and die for a larger group that is strongly identified with those values, such as a religious “brotherhood.”

We have preliminary evidence collected in Lebanon regarding the way priorities among sacred values translate the relationship between fusion with a group and parochial forms of self-sacrifice for that group. We surveyed a convenience sample of Sunni, Shia, and Christian Maronites, measuring fusion with their religious group, their attitudes toward sacrifices for the group (e.g., risking safety of the family to fight for the group or risking one’s job to fight for the group), and scores on a version of the moral foundations questionnaire that we adapted for use in previous research in Lebanon and Morocco and informed by moral foundations theory.

We found that the effect of fusion with religious group on willingness to engage in parochial sacrifice for that group was moderated by different moral concerns: fused participants who valued parochial values (e.g., purity, respect for authority and tradition) more so than universal values (e.g., concern for welfare of others, fairness) showed greater willingness to make parochial sacrifices, but fused participants who valued universal values over parochial values showed less willingness to make parochial sacrifices. We anticipate that in times of threat, morals of loyalty to the group and deference to authority gain over other basic morals such as care and fairness.

Considerations of commitment to comrades and cause bear directly on some of the world’s most pressing concerns. Indeed, in recent remarks, President Obama endorsed the judgment of his US National Intelligence director: “We underestimated the Viet Cong … we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army. … It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable”. Yet if the methods and results suggested by our research ultimately prove reliable, then predicting who is willing to fight and who is not and why could be ponderable indeed and important to the evaluation and execution of political strategy.

In this regard, Whitehouse et al. provide evidence that fusion with a family-like group of comrades in arms, which can be felt as even stronger than genetic family ties, may have underpinned the willingness of recent revolutionary combatants in Libya to fight on even in the face of death and defeat. But apart from this single study of fighters in the field, fusion studies have concerned mostly student populations in hypothetical scenarios rather than populations in actual conflict zones and have neglected the role of sacred values in generating devoted actions.

Accordingly, in our companion article, we present empirical studies with Moroccans and Spaniards to assess the relationship between sacred values, identity fusion, and costly sacrifices, including willingness to fight and die. In these companion studies, people expressed “parochial altruism” the most when they were fused with a kin-like group of like-minded friends and felt that a cherished value they considered sacred was under threat. Specifically, we interviewed and tested Moroccans in two neighborhoods where we had earlier carried out anthropological fieldwork and that had previously been associated with terrorist actions and were currently associated with high volunteer rates for the Islamic State.

Subjects expressed willingness to make costly sacrifices for the implementation of strict sharia when they were fused with a kin-like group of friends and considered sharia law as sacred. They were also most supportive of militant jihad. Complementing this experimental study in the field, an online study showed that Spaniards who were fused with a kin-like group of friends and considered democracy as sacred were most willing to make costly sacrifices for democracy after being reminded of acts of jihadi terrorism (although overall level of willingness to sacrifice among Spaniards was significantly lower than among Moroccans supportive of militant jihad).

They were also more likely to consider their own group more formidable and jihadis as weak, which may facilitate costly actions against the “enemy.” These results corroborate previous findings among Americans and Palestinians that devoted actors are most likely to commit themselves to extreme actions of parochial altruism if they perceive themselves to be under existential threat from outside groups.

In the sweep of cultural evolution, movements that develop psychological mechanisms to promote devoted actors are more likely to succeed because they exploit evolved psychology (e.g., kin selection) in evolutionarily novel ways. The interaction of identity fusion and sacred values seems to be one such case, where the psychology of kin selection combines with bonding rituals (e.g., sacred oaths, bayat, to the brotherhood, ikhwaniyah, of jihad and its leaders) to inextricably cement individuals to the group via a shared spiritual and moral mission.