The devoted actor’s will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict

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Frontline investigations with fighters against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), combined with multiple online studies, address willingness to fight and die in intergroup conflict. The general focus is on non-utilitarian aspects of human conflict, which combatants themselves deem ‘sacred’ or ‘spiritual’, whether secular or religious. Here we investigate two key components of a theoretical framework we call ‘the devoted actor’—sacred values and identity fusion with a group—to better understand people’s willingness to make costly sacrifices. We reveal three crucial factors: commitment to non-negotiable sacred values and the groups that the actors are wholly fused with; readiness to forsake kin for those values; and perceived spiritual strength of ingroup versus foes as more important than relative material strength. We directly relate expressed willingness for action to behaviour as a check on claims that decisions in extreme conflicts are driven by cost–benefit calculations, which may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense.

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We thank everyone who participated in the studies, especially those on the frontline in Iraq. We acknowledge partial funding support from the Minerva Program of the US Department of Defense (ONR N000141310054 and AFOSR FA9550-14-1-0030 DEF), as well as the Office of Naval Research (N00014-16-C-3032), US National Science Foundation (SES 1559387) and Spanish Government (PSI2015-67754-P). Funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. We thank R. Axelrod, B. Fischhoff, X. Lois, J. Smith and D. Stone for assistance in developing and informally reviewing this research.

Author information

Author notes

  1. Ángel Gómez and Scott Atran contributed equally to this work.


  1. Artis International, 6424 East Greenway Parkway, Suite 100-498, Scottsdale, AZ, 85254, USA

    • Ángel Gómez
    • , Lucía López-Rodríguez
    • , Hammad Sheikh
    • , Jeremy Ginges
    • , Lydia Wilson
    • , Hoshang Waziri
    • , Alexandra Vázquez
    • , Richard Davis
    •  & Scott Atran
  2. Departamento de Psicología Social y de las Organizaciones, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, UNED, C/ Juan del Rosal, No. 10, 28040, Madrid, Spain

    • Ángel Gómez
  3. Departamento de Psicología, Universidad de Almería, Cañada de San Urbano s/n, 04120, Almería, Spain

    • Lucía López-Rodríguez
  4. Department of Psychology, New School for Social Research, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY, 10011, USA

    • Hammad Sheikh
    •  & Jeremy Ginges
  5. Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts, CRIC, Department of Politics and International Relations and Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, Mansfield Road, Oxford, OX1 3TD, UK

    • Richard Davis
    •  & Scott Atran
  6. School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University, Coor Hall, 975 South Myrtle Avenue, Tempe, AZ, 85287, USA

    • Richard Davis
  7. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Institut Jean Nicod—Ecole Normale Supérieure, 29 Rue d’Ulm, 75005, Paris, France

    • Scott Atran
  8. Gerald Ford School of Public Policy and Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109, USA

    • Scott Atran


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S.A. conceived and directed frontline investigations and was overall project director. Á.G. conceived and directed online studies. S.A. and Á.G. managed project communication. Á.G. and L.L.-R. prepared online protocols and collected online data. S.A. and H.S. prepared frontline protocols. S.A., L.W. and H.W. collected frontline data. S.A., H.S., J.G. and A.V. participated in refining and developing online protocols and experimental design. Á.G., J.G., L.W., H.W. and R.D. participated in developing frontline protocols and experimental design. Á.G., H.S. and L.L.-R. initiated data analysis. S.A., Á.G. and J.G. initiated manuscript preparation. All authors reviewed and approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott Atran.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–19, Supplementary References

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

    Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Video 1

    Peshmerga Fighter

  4. Supplementary Video 2

    ISIS Fighter

  5. Supplementary Video 3

    Value vs Group