The Causes We Click (and Die) For

Jacob Ward
Sep 8, 2017 · 9 min read
Cairo’s Tahrir Square, July 29, 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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The series “Guidance Systems” discusses technologies that seem to improve our lives by offering us new choices, while in fact shaping or removing our ability to decide things for ourselves.

The job description is daunting: find people so committed to a cause that they’d fight and die for it, then get close enough to them that you can truly understand their commitment. That’s what a gig at Artis International entails. The researchers that make up this think tank seek out, befriend, and study the world’s most maniacal fighters in the bloodiest conflicts on earth. And in the process, they’re discovering that the systems that make us human may not make us the kind of humans we’d like to think we are.

Lydia Wilson, an Artis research fellow, studied history at Cambridge and has lived and worked in Syria, Beirut, Kosovo, Jordan. She speaks Arabic, and is considered one of the more fearless members of the team. Often her interviews take place where even journalists don’t go. “At one point I was interviewing a Peshmerga general on the front line,” she remembers, “and the person left in command in his absence was a friend of mine.” (The Peshmerga are the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan.) “As we were driving away afterward, he asked ‘didn’t you hear ISIS attack during your conversation?’ I hadn’t. In the transcript of the interview I ask ‘Is it raining?’” She laughs.

“The Peshmerga are pretty extreme, and they always talk about Kurdishness. They won’t blow themselves up, for instance. It’s not Kurdish. But hospitality is a big thing for them. Very Kurdish. So it turns out they’d ordered their troops not to fire back, in case the shooting scared me.”

In a new study published in Nature Human Behaviour, Wilson, Artis co-founder Scott Atran and several colleagues detail the attributes of “devoted actors,” people like the Peshmerga fighters defined by powerful and frightening characteristics: “commitment to non-negotiable sacred values and the groups that the actors are wholly fused with” as well as “readiness to forsake kin for those values.” I’ve interviewed Atran and his team several times over the years, and in this and their other works, they’re revealing values that seem to transfix and influence human beings in powerful ways that we don’t fully understand.

The new paper from Artis is based on field interviews with Peshmerga, Iraqi army troops, and Sunni Arab militiamen, along with captured ISIS fighters. In conversations with the researchers, the fighters’ spontaneous explanations for their actions echoed patterns that Artis had encountered before. (The study was supplemented by online surveys of more than 6000 non-combatants in Europe.) They demonstrated an astounding loyalty to abstract ideals. They demonstrated greater loyalty to their fighting group than to their own families. And when offered the possibility of trading the battlefield for earthly comforts — money, a safe life in a peaceful nation, a better life for their children elsewhere—they often became angry, sometimes apoplectic.

The authors knew that they were dealing with powerfully motivated people. “We found evidence of devoted action in the battle for the village of Kudilah, the first engagement in the offensive to retake Mosul, the largest ISIS-controlled city. Some ninety ISIS fighters fought several hundred coalition forces of Peshmerga, Iraqi army and Arab Sunni militia,” the study reads. “More than half of ISIS’s fighters died, including more than a dozen suicide attackers.”

What made these fighters so devoted? The authors were trying to determine the factors that directly compel everyday human beings to split off from their native societies and voluntarily throw themselves into warfare, and by the end of the study, they seemed to have identified a few “sacred values” powerful enough to do it. And in studying those values, they may have identified dynamics that compel you and me, as well.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holding his daughter in a village outside of Dohuk, Iraq (Photo:

The study defined a “sacred” value as being one that is impervious to temptation, utterly non-negotiable. “To measure sacredness, we investigated willingness to trade-off values in exchange for material benefits, whether for individual or collective gain,” the authors write. “Absolute refusal to contemplate such trade-offs was taken as an indicator of a sacred value.”

What were those values? For Peshmerga and Iraqi Kurdish troops, they included a commitment to an independent Kurdistan, and to the dignity of “Kurdeity.” For Sunni Arab militiamen, they included questions of Shariah law and of “Arabness.”

And the groups had a powerful confidence in their own spiritual strength, rather than judging their prowess on the battlefield through a rational military assessment. “Using techniques to judge physical formidability that assessed the perceived strength of various combatant groups in Iraq, we found that both ISIS and PKK fighters disregarded consideration of ingroup and outgroup physical formidability. They argued that most important was spiritual formidability.”

The checklist of a “devoted actor,” then, goes something like this: People devoted enough to fight and die for a cause subsume their individual identity within a group identity, usually prizing that group even over their own families, possess abstract beliefs about freedom and dignity that cannot be swayed by material enticements, and evaluate themselves and their foes based on their spiritual strength, rather than on their numbers or their weaponry. From France, where he’s research director in anthropology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, in Paris, Scott Atran told me that he believes there’s some evolutionary purpose to all of this.

“These transcendental conceptions that go beyond individuals makes the group immune to regular scrutiny, and that turns out paradoxically to give us incredible group strength and personal strength,” he says. “That’s what got us out of the caves.”

“You need ways to keep these bigger and bigger groups together. These systems of strange ideas — transcendental ideas that can’t be empirically tested — become ever more important. For one thing, you have to ensure that the members of your group are blind to exit strategies. So no matter what enticements you offer them, they reject them. ‘Better dead than red,’ that kind of notion.”

Nafees Hamid, a research fellow for Artis, has worked for years to understand newly minted fighters for ISIS, the banned UK jihadist group Al-Muhajiroun, and others. Hamid grew up in the California Bay Area, studied cognitive science and psychology at UC San Diego, then earned a Master’s in cognitive science from the École Normale Supérieure where Atran teaches. Hamid now splits his time between London and Barcelona. He has formed online and face-to-face relationships with radical recruiters, and has worked with defectors languishing in detention centers. “I think about the long run and the short run,” he says. “In the short run it seems pretty grim.”

At the moment, he’s in the midst of a research project Artis hasn’t released yet, but he says it has taught him a few things about what sorts of values set off deep, automatic, emotional reactions, and which values get a calmer, more considered reaction from the brain.

The research involves interviews with Al Qaeda sympathizers in Europe, drawn from specific immigrant communities. And Hamid says the findings suggest that sacred values may be processed by the part of the brain that learns and obeys concrete rules: the stove is hot, the cliff is dangerous, etc. “Truly sacred values seem to set off that deontological system,” Hamid says. “And when it’s non-sacred values, it’s the executive control portions of the brain,” he says. The portion that slows down, thinks things through, and processes our higher thoughts. “Basically, the reaction time is slower for the non-sacred values.”

So what actions violate sacred values, and set off instinctive reactions? “One of them was drawing a caricature of prophet Muhammad,” says Hamid. “Another is sharia law in non-Muslim lands. Stuff about Kashmir and Palestine. That stuff is the low-hanging fruit of sacred values.”

The non-sacred values, which provoke a more measured response, “were US military occupation in Muslim lands, drone strikes, whether there should be Islamic teaching or sacred food in their kids’ schools.”

In effect, Hamid says, the stuff that actually affects their lives doesn’t fire up the most powerful decision-making systems in their brains. “Sacred values are more broad, abstract, transcendent,” he says. “ISIS isn’t spending time talking about halal food in public centers. They’re not the values they spend their time on.”

It seems that it isn’t Maslow’s hierarchy of need, or any other simple taxonomy that governs these devoted actors. Abstract values — values that make no real difference in our lives, but speak to who we want to be — are more easily elevated to a sacred role. “There’s something sexy about the abstract,” Hamid says. “That’s what gets foreign parties to go to the Muslim world.”

The difficulty is when groups are transfixed by conflicting sacred values. Hamid says he’s not optimistic about helping people to get along. “Turning tribes into cosmopolitan cities, breaking down borders, seeing us all as humans — that takes a lot of trust and confidence and not feeling marginalized,” he says.

“The way that our brains have evolved is to be much more tribalistic than that. Our political structure goes against the structure of our brains.”

Our media structure, sharpened by the analytical power of technology, goes very much with the structure of our brains, however. If we impose Artis’s findings about the lives of radical fighters on our everyday lives as users of technology and consumers of media, the pattern clicks right into place.

Artis has found that devoted actors fuse their individual identities with those of groups. This tendency hands a powerful tool not just to extremists, but to any group — gun-rights activists, democratic pollsters, pug rescuers — that wants to recruit members, raise money, or influence policy. The innocent act of joining a Facebook group or subreddit that draws us in among the like-minded may in fact be acting more powerfully on us than we’re aware. Our brains are built to have a much deeper emotional reaction to who we imagine we are than to who we actually are.

And while we like to imagine that the tribalism and deep emotional reactions to sacred, abstract values Artis has observed in devoted actors are a long way removed from who we are in the West, that may not be the case, at least not for much longer.

Lydia Wilson says that she’s beginning to see the same forces that work so powerfully on radical fighters around the world moving into the social and political fabric of the United States, Britain, and the rest of the Western world.

“What I notice endlessly is the groupishness of humans,” she says. But until now, she says, she thought the US and her native UK were different. “There aren’t typically the same commitments to the group — except family — in the West.”

Now that is starting to change, she says. “These new debates — Brexit, and what it is to be British and European. I don’t like what I see there. If Britishness can swallow up so many people, and the idea of making America great again, and Americans thinking that American superiority comes before any other quality, that’s a very scary road.”

She believes that qualities she used to see only in conflict zones are becoming part of Western life. “The idea that you’re more tightly bonded to an in-group at the expense of the out-group,” she sighs. “I see that becoming more mainstream.”

Tech ethicists like Tristan Harris have written widely about the ways companies use our innate tendencies—the desire for social approval, social reciprocity, variable rewards—against us. (Harris wrote recently that AR and VR could very easily make this deep capacity for online manipulation even worse.) And Facebook’s own research shows that its users tend to gather together with like-minded friends, rather than seeking out ideas and topics they don’t agree with or don’t instinctively pursue. This sort of unconscious decision making and group formation may seem like just a social inconvenience, an innocent addiction, a time-waster. But if the researchers at Artis are correct, humans have the capacity to carry those same tendencies to a deeply dangerous place.


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Jacob Ward

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Technology correspondent for NBC News. Berggruen Fellow at Stanford’s CASBS program. Former editor-in-chief of Popular Science.

Guidance Systems
Guidance Systems
Guidance Systems

About this Collection

Guidance Systems

We just barely understand the human mind and human behavior, and yet we’re building technologies and businesses that shape our lives in dramatic and fundamental ways. Military robots that have already taken the ethics of war out of human hands. Addiction specialists who are building the neuroscience of habit into apps. Children’s television producers who are trying to use their shows to build better values into their young audience. These are guidance systems, and this series reveals the powerful, occasionally beneficial, and often shortsighted ways in which they’re making our choices for us. Produced in partnership with

We just barely understand the human mind and human behavior, and yet we’re building technologies and businesses that shape our lives in dramatic and fundamental ways. Military robots that have already taken the ethics of war out of human hands. Addiction specialists who are building the neuroscience of habit into apps. Children’s television producers who are trying to use their shows to build better values into their young audience. These are guidance systems, and this series reveals the powerful, occasionally beneficial, and often shortsighted ways in which they’re making our choices for us. Produced in partnership with