Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 24 July 2017


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.

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Figure 1: Experimental design and stimuli.
Figure 2: Significant differences between groups, associations between moral judgement and other relevant factors, and ROC curve analyses.


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Agustín Ibáñez.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Discussion (S1–S7), Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary References. (PDF 267 kb)

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Baez, S., Herrera, E., García, A. et al. Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0118 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0118

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