Letter

Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists

  • Nature Human Behaviour 1, Article number: 0118 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0118
  • Download Citation
Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

As shown by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, terrorism is one of the most pernicious threats to contemporary societies1. In addition to obliterating the freedom and physical integrity of victims, terrorist practices can destabilize governments, undermine civil harmony and threaten economic development1. This is tragically corroborated by the recent history of Colombia, a country marked by escalations of paramilitary terrorist violence2. Although multiple disciplines are struggling to understand these atrocities, the contributions from cognitive science have been limited. Social cognition abilities3,4,5,6,7 have been proposed as important variables in relation to criminal and violent profiles. Against this background, this study aimed to assess the moral judgements and social-cognitive profiles of 66 ex-combatants from a paramilitary terrorist group. We found that moral judgement in terrorists is abnormally guided by outcomes rather than by the integration of intentions and outcomes. This pattern was partially related to emotion recognition and proactive aggression scores but independent from other cognitive domains. In addition, moral judgement was the measure that best discriminated between terrorists and non-criminals.

  • Subscribe to Nature Human Behaviour for full access:

    $99

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Human Rights, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism (United Nations, 2008).

  2. 2.

    & Terrorism in Colombia: logic and sources of a multidimensional and ubiquitous phenomenon. Terror. Polit. Violenc. 21, 42–61 (2009).

  3. 3.

    , & Explaining gender differences in crime and violence: the importance of social cognitive skills. Aggress. Violent Behav. 10, 263–288 (2005).

  4. 4.

    & Impaired social cognition in violent offenders: perceptual deficit or cognitive bias? Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci. 267, 257–266 (2017).

  5. 5.

    , , & Empathy and recognition of facial expressions of emotion in sex offenders, non-sex offenders and normal controls. Psychiatry Res. 165, 252–262 (2009).

  6. 6.

    et al. The moral judgment of juvenile delinquents: a meta-analysis. J Abnorm. Child Psychol. 34, 697–713 (2006).

  7. 7.

    , , & Aberrant neural processing of moral violations in criminal psychopaths. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 119, 863–874 (2010).

  8. 8.

    , , , & Common ecology quantifies human insurgency. Nature 462, 911–914 (2009).

  9. 9.

    Leave Us in Peace! Targeting Civilians in Colombia’s Internal Armed Conflict (Amnesty International, 2008).

  10. 10.

    & Religious and sacred imperatives in human conflict. Science 336, 855–857 (2012).

  11. 11.

    et al. Terrorism — a (self) love story: redirecting the significance quest can end violence. Am. Psychol. 68, 559–575 (2013).

  12. 12.

    Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy 23–24 (Common Courage, 1996).

  13. 13.

    , , , & Opinion: the neural basis of human moral cognition. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 6, 799–809 (2005).

  14. 14.

    et al. Inter-individual cognitive variability in children with Asperger’s syndrome. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8, 575 (2014).

  15. 15.

    et al. Deficits in facial, body movement and vocal emotional processing in autism spectrum disorders. Psychol. Med. 40, 1919–1929 (2010).

  16. 16.

    , , & Utilitarian moral judgment in psychopathy. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 7, 708–714 (2012).

  17. 17.

    , , & Psychopathy increases perceived moral permissibility of accidents. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 121, 659–667 (2012).

  18. 18.

    The amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in morality and psychopathy. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11, 387–392 (2007).

  19. 19.

    et al. Comparing moral judgments of patients with frontotemporal dementia and frontal stroke. JAMA Neurol. 71, 1172–1176 (2014).

  20. 20.

    , , , & Personality characteristics of ‘self martyrs’/‘suicide bombers’ and organizers of suicide attacks. Terror. Polit. Violenc. 22, 87–101 (2009).

  21. 21.

    Crime and punishment: distinguishing the roles of causal and intentional analyses in moral judgment. Cognition 108, 353–380 (2008).

  22. 22.

    , , & The neural basis of the interaction between theory of mind and moral judgment. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 8235–8240 (2007).

  23. 23.

    The Moral Judgment of the Child (Free Press, 1965).

  24. 24.

    & Intentionality and knowledge in children’s judgments of actor’s responsibility and recipient’s emotional reaction. Dev. Psychol. 24, 358–365 (1988).

  25. 25.

    & Perceived intent motivates people to magnify observed harms. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 3599–3605 (2015).

  26. 26.

    & On rational choice theory and the study of terrorism. Defence Peace Econ. 16, 275–282 (2005).

  27. 27.

    The mind of the terrorist. A review and critique of psychological approaches. J. Conflict Resolut. 49, 3–42 (2005).

  28. 28.

    & Toward a relativity theory of rationality. Soc. Cognition 27, 639–660 (2009).

  29. 29.

    , & The rationality of sexual offending: testing a deterrence/rational choice conception of sexual assault. Law Soc. Rev. 26, 343–372 (1992).

  30. 30.

    & An application of the rational choice approach to the offending process of sex offenders: a closer look at the decision-making. Sex Abuse 19, 115–133 (2007).

  31. 31.

    & Deterring delinquents: a rational choice model of theft and violence. Am. Sociol. Rev. 71, 95–122 (2006).

  32. 32.

    Essentials of Terrorism: Concepts and Controversies (Sage, 2014).

  33. 33.

    Emotional legacies of war among former Colombian paramilitaries. Peace Conflict J. Peace Psychol. 18, 369–383 (2012).

  34. 34.

    & Rebelling Against Rebellion. Comparing Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Recruitment (Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, 2009).

  35. 35.

    Telling the difference: guerrillas and paramilitaries in the Colombian war. Polit. Soc. 36, 3–34 (2008).

  36. 36.

    Motives for the enlistment and demobilization of illegal armed combatants in Colombia. Peace Conflict J. Peace Psychol. 15, 263–280 (2009).

  37. 37.

    The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychol. Rev. 108, 814–834 (2001).

  38. 38.

    Moral judgment as information processing: an integrative review. Front. Psychol. 6, 1637 (2015).

  39. 39.

    , & The role of conscious reasoning and intuition in moral judgment: testing three principles of harm. Psychol. Sci. 17, 1082–1089 (2006).

  40. 40.

    , , , & The neural bases of cognitive conflict and control in moral judgment. Neuron 44, 389–400 (2004).

  41. 41.

    et al. Integration of intention and outcome for moral judgment in frontotemporal dementia: brain structural signatures. Neurodegener. Dis. 16, 206–217 (2016).

  42. 42.

    et al. Impaired theory of mind for moral judgment in high-functioning autism. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 2688–2692 (2011).

  43. 43.

    Psychology of Terrorism (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).

  44. 44.

    & Is criminal behavior a central component of psychopathy? conceptual directions for resolving the debate. Psychol. Assess. 22, 433–445 (2010).

  45. 45.

    et al. Integration of intention and outcome for moral judgment in frontotemporal dementia: brain structural signatures. Neurodegener. Dis. 16, 206–217 (2016).

  46. 46.

    The unique predisposition to criminal violations in frontotemporal dementia. J. Am. Acad. Psychiatry Law 38, 318–323 (2010).

  47. 47.

    , , & Law, responsibility, and the brain. PLoS Biol. 5, e103 (2007).

  48. 48.

    , & Assessing the relationship among Defining Issues Test scores and crystallised and fluid intellectual indices. J. Moral Educ. 36, 475–496 (2007).

  49. 49.

    & Intelligence and aggression: the role of cognitive control and test related stress. Pers. Indiv. Differ. 81, 23–38 (2015).

  50. 50.

    & Psychopathic personality and utilitarian moral judgment in college students. J. Crim. Just. 41, 342–349 (2013).

  51. 51.

    & Impact of psychopathy on moral judgments about causing fear and physical harm. PLoS One 10, e0125708 (2015).

  52. 52.

    et al. Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements. Nature 446, 908–911 (2007).

  53. 53.

    & Integrative moral judgment: dissociating the roles of the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. J. Neurosci. 34, 4741–4749 (2014).

  54. 54.

    et al. Early detection of intentional harm in the human amygdala. Brain 139, 54–61 (2016).

  55. 55.

    From profiles to pathways and roots to routes: perspectives from psychology on radicalization into terrorism. Ann. Am. Acad. Polit. Soc. Sci. 619, 80–94 (2008).

  56. 56.

    Moral Development and Reality: Beyond the Theories of Kohlberg, Hoffman and Haidt 4th edn (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

  57. 57.

    Considering new insights into antisociality and psychopathy. Lancet Psychiatry 2, 115–116 (2015).

  58. 58.

    in Terrorism: Roots, Impact, Responses (ed. Howard, L.) 71–80 (Praeger, 1992).

  59. 59.

    & in Terrorism, Victims and Society (ed. Silkey, A.) (Wiley, 2003).

  60. 60.

    & Transitional justice in times of conflict: Colombia’s Ley de Justicia y Paz. Mich. J. Int. Law 49, 1–60 (2006).

  61. 61.

    Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (Psychological Corporation, 1999).

  62. 62.

    Guide To Standard Progressive Matrices (HK Lewis, 1960).

  63. 63.

    , , , & INECO Frontal Screening (IFS): a brief, sensitive, and specific tool to assess executive functions in dementia. J. Int. Neuropsychol. Soc. 15, 777–786 (2009).

  64. 64.

    et al. Utility of the INECO frontal screening (IFS) in the detection of executive dysfunction in patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). Neurol. Sci. 36, 2035–2041 (2015).

  65. 65.

    et al. The utility of IFS (INECO Frontal Screening) for the detection of executive dysfunction in adults with bipolar disorder and ADHD. Psychiatry Res. 216, 269–276 (2014).

  66. 66.

    , , & Comparing the clinical usefulness of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (INECO) Frontal Screening (IFS) and the Frontal Assessment Battery (FAB) in frontotemporal dementia. J. Clin. Exp. Neuropsychol. 33, 997–1004 (2011).

  67. 67.

    et al. Evaluation of the INECO Frontal Screening and the Frontal Assessment Battery in Peruvian patients with Alzheimer’s disease and behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia. J. Neurol. Sci. 5, 25–29 (2016).

  68. 68.

    et al. Emotion recognition and cognitive empathy deficits in adolescent offenders revealed by context-sensitive tasks. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8, 850 (2014).

  69. 69.

    & Psychometric properties of the Situation and Aggressive Behavior Inventory and the Motives for Aggression Inventory. Univ. Psychol. 7, 149–171 (2008).

  70. 70.

    , & Un modelo dicotómico de la agresión: valorción mediante dos auto-informes (CAMA y RPQ). Psicopatol. Clín. Legal Forens. 5, 25–42 (2006).

  71. 71.

    , , & TASIT: a new clinical tool for assessing social perception after traumatic brain injury. J. Head Trauma Rehabil. 18, 219–238 (2003).

  72. 72.

    et al. Abnormal moral reasoning in complete and partial callosotomy patients. Neuropsychologia 48, 2215–2220 (2010).

  73. 73.

    et al. Damage to ventromedial prefrontal cortex impairs judgment of harmful intent. Neuron 65, 845–851 (2010).

  74. 74.

    , , , & Disruption of the right temporoparietal junction with transcranial magnetic stimulation reduces the role of beliefs in moral judgments. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 6753–6758 (2010).

  75. 75.

    & The neural basis of belief encoding and integration in moral judgment. Neuroimage 40, 1912–1920 (2008).

  76. 76.

    & An FMRI investigation of spontaneous mental state inference for moral judgment. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 21, 1396–1405 (2009).

  77. 77.

    et al. Integrating intention and context: assessing social cognition in adults with Asperger syndrome. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 6, 302 (2012).

  78. 78.

    & Estimation of the area under the ROC curve. Stat. Med. 21, 3093–3106 (2002).

  79. 79.

    , , & Diagnostic methods 2: receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curves. Kidney Int. 76, 252–256 (2009).

  80. 80.

    What is a support vector machine? Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 1565–1567 (2006).

  81. 81.

    et al. The WEKA data mining software: an update. SIGKDD Explor. 11, 10–18 (2009).

Download references

Acknowledgements

This work was partially supported by grants from CONICET, CONICYT/FONDECYT Regular (1170010), FONCyT-PICT 2012-0412, FONCyT-PICT 2012-1309, FONDAP 15150012 and the INECO Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

    • Sandra Baez
    •  & Eduar Herrera

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Laboratory of Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience (LPEN), Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience (INCyT), INECO Foundation, Favaloro University, Pacheco de Melo 1860, C1126AAB, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    • Sandra Baez
    • , Eduar Herrera
    • , Adolfo M. García
    • , Facundo Manes
    •  & Agustín Ibáñez
  2. Universidad de los Andes, Carrera 1 18a-12, Bogotá, 111711, Colombia.

    • Sandra Baez
  3. National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), Godoy Cruz 2290, C1425FQB Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    • Sandra Baez
    • , Eduar Herrera
    • , Adolfo M. García
    • , Facundo Manes
    •  & Agustín Ibáñez
  4. Departamento de Estudios Psicológicos, Universidad ICESI, Calle 18 No. 122-135, Santiago del Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

    • Eduar Herrera
  5. Faculty of Education, National University of Cuyo (UNCuyo), Sobremonte 74, Mendoza, C5500, Argentina.

    • Adolfo M. García
  6. Center for Social and Cognitive Neuroscience (CSCN), School of Psychology, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Avenida Presidente Errázuriz 3328, Santiago de Chile, Chile.

    • Facundo Manes
    •  & Agustín Ibáñez
  7. Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467, USA.

    • Liane Young
  8. ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Sydney, Macquarie University, New South Wales 2109, Australia.

    • Agustín Ibáñez
  9. Universidad Autónoma del Caribe, Calle 90 46-112, C2754 Barranquilla, Atlántico, Colombia.

    • Agustín Ibáñez

Authors

  1. Search for Sandra Baez in:

  2. Search for Eduar Herrera in:

  3. Search for Adolfo M. García in:

  4. Search for Facundo Manes in:

  5. Search for Liane Young in:

  6. Search for Agustín Ibáñez in:

Contributions

S.B., E.H. and A.I. developed the study concept and the study design; E.H. performed testing and data collection; S.B. and A.M.G. performed the data analysis and interpretation under the supervision of A.I.; S.B., E.H., L.Y. and A.I. drafted the manuscript; and A.I., A.M.G., F.M. and L.Y. provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Agustín Ibáñez.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion (S1–S7), Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary References.