Not the psychology of Joe average terrorist

News reports have been covering a fascinating study on the moral reasoning of ‘terrorists’ published in Nature Human Behaviour but it’s worth being aware of the wider context to understand what it means.

Firstly, it’s important to highlight how impressive this study is. The researchers, led by Sandra Baez, managed to complete the remarkably difficult task of getting access to, and recruiting, 66 jailed paramilitary fighters from the Colombian armed conflict to participate in the study.

They compared this group to 66 matched ‘civilians’ with no criminal background and 13 jailed murderers with no paramilitary connections, on a moral reasoning task.

The task involved 24 scenarios that varied in two important ways: harm and no harm, and intended and unintended actions. Meaning the researchers could compare across four situations – no harm, accidental harm, unsuccessfully attempted harm, and successfully attempted harm.

A consistent finding was that paramilitary participants consistently judged accidental harm as less acceptable than other groups, and intentional harm as more acceptable than others groups, indicating a distortion in moral reasoning.

They also measured cognitive function, emotion recognition and aggressive tendencies and found that when these measures were included in the analysis, they couldn’t account for the results.

One slightly curious thing in the paper though, and something the media has run with, is that the authors describe the background of the paramilitary participants and then discuss the implications for understanding ‘terrorists’ throughout.

But some context on the Colombian armed conflict is needed here.

The participants were right-wing paramilitaries who took part in the demobilisation agreement of 2003. This makes them members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC – a now defunct organisation who were initially formed by drug traffickers and land owners to combat the extortion and kidnapping of the left-wing Marxist paramilitary organisations – mostly notably the FARC.

The organisation was paramilitary in the traditional sense – with uniforms, a command structure, local and regional divisions, national commanders, and written statutes. It involved itself in drug trafficking, extortion, torture, massacres, targeted killings, and ‘social cleansing’ of civilians assumed to be undesirable (homeless people, people with HIV, drug users etc) and killings of people thought to support left-wing causes. Fighters were paid and most signed up for economic reasons.

It was indeed designated a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, although within Colombia they enjoyed significant support from mainstream politicians (the reverberations of which are still being felt) and there is widespread evidence of collusion with the Colombian security forces of the time.

Also, considering that a great deal of military and paramilitary training is about re-aligning moral judgements, it’s not clear how well you can generalise these results to terrorists in general.

It is probably unlikely that the moral reasoning of people who participated in this study is akin to, for example, the jihadi terrorists who have mounted semi-regular attacks in Europe over the last few years. Or alternatively, it is not clear how ‘acceptable harm’ moral reasoning applies across different contexts in different groups.

Even within Colombia you can see how the terrorist label is not a reliable classification of a particular group’s actions and culture. Los Urabeños are the biggest drug trafficking organisation in Colombia at the moment. They are essentially the Centauros Bloc of the AUC, who didn’t demobilise and just changed their name. They are involved in very similar activities.

Importantly, they are not classified as a terrorist organisation, despite being virtually same organisation from which members were recruited into this study.

I would guess these results are probably more directly relevant in understanding paramilitary criminal organisations, like the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, than more ideologically-oriented groups that claim political or religious motivations, although it would be fascinating if they did generalise.

So what this study provides is a massively useful step forward in understanding moral reasoning in this particular paramilitary group, and the extent to which this applies to other terrorist, paramilitary or criminal groups is an open question.

Link to open access study in Nature Human Behaviour.

What triggers that feeling of being watched?

You feel somebody is looking at you, but you don’t know why. The explanation lies in some intriguing neuroscience and the study of a strange form of brain injury.

Something makes you turn and see someone watching you. Perhaps on a busy train, or at night, or when you’re strolling through the park. How did you know you were being watched? It can feel like an intuition which is separate from your senses, but really it demonstrates that your senses – particularly vision – can work in mysterious ways.

Intuitively, many of us might imagine that when you look at something with your eyes, signals travel to your visual cortex and then you have the conscious experience of seeing it, but the reality is far weirder.

Once information leaves our eyes it travels to at least 10 distinct brain areas, each with their own specialised functions. Many of us have heard of the visual cortex, a large region at the back of the brain which gets most attention from neuroscientists. The visual cortex supports our conscious vision, processing colour and fine detail to help produce the rich impression of the world we enjoy. But other parts of our brain are also processing different pieces of information, and these can be working away even when we don’t – or can’t – consciously perceive something.

The survivors of neural injury can cast some light on these mechanisms. When an accident damages the visual cortex, your vision is affected. If you lose all of your visual cortex you will lose all conscious vision, becoming what neurologists call ‘cortically blind’. But, unlike if you lose your eyes, cortically blind is only mostly blind – the non-cortical visual areas can still operate. Although you can’t have the subjective impression of seeing anything without a visual cortex, you can respond to things captured by your eyes that are processed by these other brain areas.

In 1974 a researcher called Larry Weiskrantz coined the term ‘blindsight’ for the phenomenon of patients who were still able to respond to visual stimuli despite losing all conscious vision due to destruction of the visual cortex. Patients like this can’t read or watch films or anything requiring processing of detail, but they are – if asked to guess – able to locate bright lights in front of them better than mere chance. Although they don’t feel like they can see anything, their ‘guesses’ have a surprising accuracy. Other visual brain areas are able to detect the light and provide information on the location, despite the lack of a visual cortex. Other studies show that people with this condition can detect emotions on faces and looming movements.

More recently, a dramatic study with a blindsight patient has shown how we might be able feel that we are being looked at, without even consciously seeing the watchers’ face. Alan J Pegna at Geneva University Hospital, Switzerland, and team worked with a man called TD (patients are always referred to by initials only in scientific studies, to preserve anonymity). TD is a doctor who suffered a stroke which destroyed his visual cortex, leaving him cortically blind.

People with this condition are rare, so TD has taken part in a string of studies to investigate exactly what someone can and can’t do without a visual cortex. The study involved looking at pictures of faces which had their eyes directed forward, looking directly at the viewer, or which had their eyes averted to the side, looking away from the viewer. TD did this task in an fMRI scanner which measured brain activity during the task, and also tried to guess which kind of face he was seeing. Obviously for anyone with normal vision, this task would be trivial – you would have a clear conscious visual impression of the face you were looking at at any one time, but recall that TD has no conscious visual impression. He feels blind.

The scanning results showed that our brains can be sensitive to what our conscious awareness isn’t. An area called the amygdala, thought to be responsible for processing emotions and information about faces, was more active when TD was looking at the faces with direct, rather than averted, gaze. When TD was being watched, his amygdala responded, even though he didn’t know it. (Interestingly, TD’s guesses as to where he was being watched weren’t above chance, and the researchers put this down to his reluctance to guess.)

Cortical, conscious vision, is still king. If you want to recognise individuals, watch films or read articles like this you are relying on your visual cortex. But research like this shows that certain functions are simpler and maybe more fundamental to survival, and exist separately from our conscious visual awareness.

Specifically, this study showed that we can detect that people are looking at us within our field of view – perhaps in the corner of our eye – even if we haven’t consciously noticed. It shows the brain basis for that subtle feeling that tells us we are being watched.

So when you’re walking that dark road and turn and notice someone standing there, or look up on the train to see someone staring at you, it may be your nonconscious visual system monitoring your environment while you’re conscious attention was on something else. It may not be supernatural, but it certainly shows the brain works in mysterious ways.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

This map shows what white Europeans associate with race – and it makes for uncomfortable reading

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The ConversationThis new map shows how easily white Europeans associate black faces with negative ideas. The ConversationSince 2002, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have logged onto a website run by Harvard University called Project Implicit and taken an “implicit association test” (IAT), a rapid-response task which measures how easily you can pair items from different categories.To create this new map, we used data from a version of the test which presents white or black faces and positive or negative words. The result shows how easily our minds automatically make the link between the categories – what psychologists call an “implicit racial attitude”.Each country on the map is coloured according to the average score of test takers from that country. Redder countries show higher average bias, bluer countries show lower average bias, as the scale on the top of the map shows.Like a similar map which had been made for US states, our map shows variation in the extent of racial bias – but all European countries are racially biased when comparing blacks versus whites.

In every country in Europe, people are slower to associate blackness with positive words such as “good” or “nice” and faster to associate blackness with negative concepts such as “bad” or “evil”. But they are quicker to make the link between blackness and negative concepts in the Czech Republic or Lithuania than they are in Slovenia, the UK or Ireland.

No country had an average score below zero, which would reflect positive associations with blackness. In fact, none had an average score that was even close to zero, which would reflect neither positive nor negative racial associations.

A screeshot from the online IAT test.
IAT, Project Implict

Implicit bias

Overall, we have scores for 288,076 white Europeans, collected between 2002 and 2015, with sample sizes for each country shown on the left-hand side.

Because of the design of the test it is very difficult to deliberately control your score. Many people, including those who sincerely hold non-racist or even anti-racist beliefs, demonstrate positive implicit bias on the test. The exact meaning of implicit attitudes, and the IAT, are controversial, but we believe they reflect the automatic associations we hold in our minds, associations that develop over years of immersion in the social world.

Although we, as individuals, may not hold racist beliefs, the ideas we associate with race may be constructed by a culture which describes people of different ethnicities in consistent ways, and ways which are consistently more or less positive. Looked at like this, the IAT – which at best is a weak measure of individual psychology – may be most useful if individuals’ scores are aggregated to provide a reflection on the collective social world we inhabit.

The results shown in this map give detail to what we already expected – that across Europe racial attitudes are not neutral. Blackness has negative associations for white Europeans, and there are some interesting patterns in how the strength of these negative associations varies across the continent.

North and west Europe, on average, have less strong anti-black associations, although they still have anti-black associations on average. As you move south and east the strength of negative associations tends to increase – but not everywhere. The Balkans look like an exception, compared to surrounding countries. Is this because of some quirk about how people in the Balkans heard about Project Implicit, or because their prejudices aren’t orientated around a white-black axis? For now, we can only speculate.

Open questions

When interpreting the map there are at least two important qualifications to bear in mind.

The first is that the scores only reflect racial attitudes in one dimension: pairing white/black with goodness/badness. Our feelings about ethnicity have many more dimensions which aren’t captured by this measure.

The second is that the data comes from Europeans who visit the the US Project Implicit website, which is in English. We can be certain that the sample reflects a subset of the European population which are more internet-savvy than is typical. They are probably also younger, and more cosmopolitan. These factors are likely to underweight the extent of implicit racism in each country, so that the true levels of implicit racism are probably higher than shown on this map.

This new map is possible because Project Implicit release their data via the Open Science Framework. This site allows scientists to share the raw materials and data from their experiments, allowing anyone to check their working, or re-analyse the data, as we have done here. I believe that open tools and publishing methods like these are necessary to make science better and more reliable.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Edit 4/5/17. The colour scale chosen for this map emphasises the differences between countries. While that’s most important for working out what drives IAT scores, the main take-away from the map is that all of Europe is considerably not neutral. That conclusion is supported by a continuous colour scale, as used in this version of the map here