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Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
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Appendix H

Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict

Scott Atran, Research Professor
University of Michigan/Oxford University

This contribution provides highlights of a report discussed at National Academy of Sciences–Russian Academy of Sciences workshops.

SUMMARY CONCLUSION

  1. The goal of transnational terrorism is to degrade, and then replace, the political order by first driving people into clashing sociopolitical camps, with no room for innocents.
  2. Regardless of its likelihood to create physical harm, terrorism has outsized psychological, social, and political effects on public health and policy.
  3. Extreme forms of terrorism—and other highly committed revolutionary and radical forms of violence—are enacted by devoted actors defending or advancing nonnegotiable sacred values rather than by rational actors who primarily weigh material costs and benefits to achieve goals.
  4. Field studies of frontline combatants, together with behavioral and brain studies of radical populations, indicate that people are more willing to fight and die for sacred values than for nonsacred values.
  5. In some extreme circumstances, commitment to sacred values can outweigh commitment to any group, including family and close comrades.
Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
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  1. Preventing extreme violence, and resolving seemingly intractable conflict may require addressing an adversary’s sacred values rather than ignoring or denigrating them, while also directly engaging (particularly with youth) in the social networks that give life to those values.
  2. Social media today do more to encourage than to discourage radicalization and extreme polarization, owing to the particular psychological and structural affordances of internet platforms and channels for networking.
  3. The increasing sociopolitical polarization over values in open societies creates an existential challenge: By impeding deliberative decision-making and blocking democratic consensus, these divisions deepen existing susceptibilities and widen opportunities for further degradation from terrorism.

FUTURE ISSUES

  1. Insofar as social marginalization of individuals and political polarization of groups both seem to promote sacralization of nonsacred values and willingness for costly sacrifice, what underlying cognitive and neuropsychological processes might they share?
  2. We know little of the cognitive processes by which mundane values become sacralized or desacralized (e.g., white supremacy was a sacred value for mainstream Americans and Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century, but it is now most prevalent in society’s fringes) or how these processes might be slowed or accelerated to relieve conflict.
  3. How to preserve social bonds of family, community, and trans-generational continuity, especially in times of conflict and adversity in societies that favor individual decision-making and cost-benefit analysis, is a psychological issue critical to liberal democracies.
  4. How might use of the internet and social media help rather than hinder people’s ability to tolerate contrary and diverse beliefs and opinions, achieve consensus, and negotiate solutions to conflicts?
  5. In the psychology of persuasion and how ideas become contagious in an era of so-called fake news, what factors disfavor recourse to reason, evidence, and truth while favoring recourse to psycho-social biases (e.g., entrenched belief and confirmation biases, in-group and authority biases, negativity focus, bandwagon effect, etc.) in
Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×
  1. promoting extreme violence? And how can these factors be parried to convince people to abandon political violence?

For additional views: Atran, S. 2020. “Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Effect,” prepared for the 2021 Annual Review of Psychology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×

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Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×
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Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×
Page140
Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×
Page141
Suggested Citation:"Appendix H: Psychology of Transnational Terrorism and Extreme Political Conflict (Scott Atran)." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A Cooperative Program of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences (1995-2020). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26281.
×
Page142
Next: Appendix I: Recent Trends and Future Concerns in Worldwide Terrorism (Gary LaFree) »
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During the past 25 years, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences, have carried out a wide variety of activities to improve understanding of the challenges in containing and reducing ethnic conflicts, violent extremism, and terrorism. Roots and Trajectories of Violent Extremism and Terrorism provides an overview of this cross-ocean program, which has involved American and Russian scientists, engineers, and medical professionals from a large number of government agencies, leading research institutions, think tanks, educational institutions, analytical centers, and consulting and commercial firms in the two countries. This report highlights challenges addressed by the academies over many years that remain of current interest as the U.S., Russian, and other governments continue to cope with old and new forms of aggression that threaten the livelihood of populations at home and abroad.

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