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


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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Fig. 1: Willingness to make costly sacrifices for participants who forsake their fused groups for sacred values in frontline (study 1) and online (study 3) studies.
Fig. 2
Fig. 3: Perceived physical versus spiritual formidability for ISIS, Spain and USA.
Fig. 4: Average (descriptive) rank of physical and spiritual formidability in study 1 for Peshmerga (n = 19), Iraqi Army Kurds (n = 17) and Sunni Arab militia (n = 20).
Fig. 5: Slopes of multiple regression analysis of costly sacrifices on intergroup differences in physical and spiritual formidability (own group versus ISIS).


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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.

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Authors and Affiliations



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.

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Correspondence to Scott Atran.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–19, Supplementary References

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Supplementary Video 1

Peshmerga Fighter

Supplementary Video 2

ISIS Fighter

Supplementary Video 3

Value vs Group

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Gómez, Á., López-Rodríguez, L., Sheikh, H. et al. The devoted actor’s will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict. Nat Hum Behav 1, 673–679 (2017).

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