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.

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