Enter your email to receive the LSS Newsletter:
Scott Atran on
“The Devoted Actor”
This is an edited version of “The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and
Intractable Conflict across Cultures” To read Atran’s original essay, please click here.
“Devoted actors” adhere to sacred values that generate actions dissociated from rationally expected risks and rewards. These are human beings who die and kill in the name of ineffable values such as God, the nation, the leader, or salvation. Suicide bombers are devoted actors, but so were many of the union and confederate soldiers of the civil war, Nazi SS-men, as well as Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. What is it about certain abstract ideas or ideals that generates willingness to die and kill in their name? What are the benefits or rewards?

Richard Koenigsberg, PhD
Director, Library of Social Science
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.

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.”

While the term “sacred values” intuitively denotes religious belief, in what follows, sacred values refer to any preferences regarding objects, beliefs, or practices that people treat as both incompatible or nonfungible with profane issues or economic goods, as when land or law becomes holy or hallowed and as inseparable from people’s conception of “self” and of “who we are.” This includes the “secularized sacred,” as, for example, in political notions of “human rights” or in the transcendent ideological “-isms” that have dominated political life ever since the Enlightenment’s secularization of the universal religious mission to redeem and save “humanity” through political revolution (liberalism, socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism, etc.; Gray.

Nevertheless, acts by devoted actors are not chiefly motivated by instrumental concerns, or at least those of which people are usually aware. Instead, they are motivated by sacred values that drive actions independent from or all out of proportion to outlays and outcomes.

Most theories and models related to violent intergroup conflict assume that civilians and leaders make a rational calculation. If the total cost of the war is less than the cost of the alternatives, they will support war. But in another set of studies, we found that when people are confronted with violent situations, they consistently ignore quantifiable costs and benefits, relying instead on sacred values.

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.”

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.