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The Sacrificial Theory of Warfare, Chapter V:
“The Devoted Actor (Atran) and Koenigsberg’s Second Law”

Scott Atran shows how today’s global terrorism is driven by “devoted actors” who adhere to sacred, transcendent values that generate actions dissociated from rationally expected risks and rewards. Devoted actors, unconditionally committed to sacred causes—whose personal identities are fused within a unique collective identity—willingly make costly sacrifices.

However, according to my Second Law, contemporary terrorism is only one of many political movements driven by “devoted actors” who adhere to transcendent values and make costly sacrifices in the name of a sacred cause.

The same is true for Great Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Russia and Germany (among other nations) in the First World War.

The term “devoted actor” is an accurate characterization of Lenin and communism, Hitler and Nazism, not to mention Abraham Lincoln and the United states in the Civil War.

Warfare is a phantasmagoric cultural activity whose purpose is to give credence to a “sacred value”—an idea in which the immortality of societies and individuals has been invested.

Richard A. Koenigsberg

“The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and
Intractable Conflict across Cultures”
Scott Atran
Talking to the Enemy
Scott Atran’s book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.


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 from rationally expected risks and rewards.

Studies in real-world conflicts show ways that devoted actors, who are unconditionally committed to sacred causes and whose personal identities are fused within a unique collective identity, willingly make costly sacrifices. This enables low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes.

Explaining how devoted actors come to sacrifice for cause and comrades not only is a scientific goal but a practical imperative to address intergroup disputes that can spiral out of control in a rapidly interconnecting world of collapsing and conflicting cultural traditions. From the recent massive media-driven global political awakening, horizontal peer-to-peer transcultural niches, geographically disconnected, are emerging to replace vertical generation-to-generation territorial traditions.

Devoted actors of the global jihadi archipelago militate within such a novel transcultural niche, which is socially tight, ideationally narrow, and globe spanning. Nevertheless, its evolutionary maintenance depends on costly commitments to transcendental values, rituals and sacrifices, and parochial altruism, which may have deep roots even in the earliest and most traditional human societies. Fieldwork results from the Kurdish battlefront with the Islamic State are highlighted.

1. The Devoted Actor

“The devoted actor” is a theoretical framework developed by a group of scholars and policy makers at Artis International (http://artisresearch.com/)—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 people’s willingness to make costly sacrifices for a group and a cause.

Our research indicates that when people act as “devoted actors” they are deontic (i.e., duty-based) agents who mobilize for collective action to protect cherished values in ways that are dissociated from likely risks or rewards. Devoted actors represent a dimension of thought and behavior distinct from instrumental rationality in resisting material compromises over such values. The devoted actor hypothesis is defined as follows:
People will become willing to protect morally important or sacred values through costly sacrifice and extreme actions, even being willing to kill and die, particularly when such values are embedded in or fused with group identity, becoming intrinsic to “Who I am” and “Who We are.”

Progress in the fields of moral psychology and philosophy has mostly focused on universal Golden Rule principles of fairness and reciprocity emotionally supported by empathy and consolation. This is in contrast to what Darwin referred to as the primary virtue of “morality … patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy” with which winning groups are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance.

Nevertheless, a smaller body of research suggests that people resist attempts to compromise sacred values no matter the cost to themselves or others. In the last decade or so, experimental work that goes beyond the morality of fairness and harm suggests that religious and transcendental beliefs consolidate “community”, lead to “binding”, provide “unity motivation” 2011, and mobilize parochial altruists, such as suicide bombers, to give their lives for the group.

The devoted actor framework integrates two hitherto independent research programs in cognitive theory, sacred values and “identity fusion,” while drawing on key insights from sociological and anthropological analyses of religion and community. Sacred values are nonnegotiable preferences whose defense compels actions beyond evident reason, that is, regardless of calculable costs and consequences. Identity fusion occurs when personal and group identities collapse into a unique identity to generate a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny. These two programs account for different aspects of intractable intergroup conflicts; however, here and in a companion article, we argue that sacred values and identity fusion interact to produce willingness to make costly sacrifices for a primary reference groups even unto death, that is, sacrificing the totality of self-interests.

There is an evolutionary rationale to willingness to make costly sacrifices for the group, even fighting to the death and against all odds. Especially when a perceived outside threat to one’s primary reference group is very high and survival prospects are very low, then only if sufficiently many members of a group are endowed with such a willingness to extreme sacrifice can the group hope to parry stronger but less devoted enemies who are less committed to disregarding the costs of action.

Sacred values mobilized for collective action by devoted actors enable outsize commitment in low-power groups to resist and often prevail against materially more powerful foes who depend on standard material incentives, such as armies and police that rely on pay and promotion. From an evolutionary perspective, collective actions, such as hunting and fighting, are vulnerable to defectors and thus difficult to initiate, but if some highly motivated individuals are willing to initiate activity, this may reduce the costs for others to join in, and such an “advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men … always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes.”

Recent changes in the composition of the global jihadi1 movement from fairly well-educated and well-off founders to increasingly marginalized youth in transitional stages of life continue to follow this evolutionary rationale, but within a new kind of transcultural niche that leapfrogs the limits and responsibilities engendered by previous generations within territories of origin. Here, peer communities of imagined kin—bands of “brothers and sisters” drawn willy-nilly from across more than 100 countries and many more ethnic groups—commit in ritual oaths and performance of sublime acts of terror to a new world order.

The jihadi Caliphate, whose “dreaming ecology” includes the global media landscape and whose cosmic law, or sharia, encompasses “the Everywhen”; it provides “an explanation of nature, establishes a social code, creates a basis for prestige and political status … acts as a religious philosophy and forms the psychological basis for life.” It is a transcultural framework whose implementation in action creates a new form of transcultural niche encompassing “human behavior, perception and embodiment, cultural institutions and history, social experience and symbolic life.

Its evolutionary maintenance, while largely nongenerational and somewhat extraterritorial, nonetheless appears to rely on the sorts of costly commitments to transcendental ideals and values, rituals and sacrifices, and parochial altruism that also likely have deep roots even in the earliest and most traditional societies.