Le’ Notes #26: The role of human nature in terrorism

This post discusses the role of human nature as a basis of a “group tent” and how it can lead to violence.

What makes a normal person undergo the process of radicalisation? In the debates discussing the process of radicalisation, there’s a perspective that holds human nature as a principal starting point. This view is grounded in human psychology, particularly, the study of evolutionary psychology. Its main assumption is simple enough: humans have inherent traits that can be “ignited” to allow radicalisation to take place.

It is worth noting that here, the role of ideology has yet to come into play. Ideology amplifies these inherent traits and funnels them into action.

The need for a “group tent”

For starters, we’d have to revisit Darwinian evolutionary theory. We should be familiar with Darwin’s maxim, “Survival of the fittest”. We are hard-wired to seek groups, since from an evolutionary perspective, those who managed to get together survived more often than those who decided to become lone wolves. As we evolved into slightly more modern apes, this instinct remained. Thus, we are inherently tribal.

In Radical Pathways [book], Ramakrishna makes the case that being in a “good” group provides both a stable identity and security. On top of our individual personal identity, we also wear a looser piece of clothing, which is the group identity. When the group’s identity is well-perceived, we gain a sense of good self-esteem. At the same time, when the group is functioning properly, we’ll feel secure mentally and physically. This group identity is what is referred to as the “Group Tent”, or the larger, overarching identity which we identify with. For example, my Group Tent is as an Indonesian since I feel that it is the group that will provide me with self-esteem and physical security.

These tribal tendencies do have their implications, though. Since we view the Group Tent as part of our identity, we are especially prone to ethnocentrism (in-group bias; favouring our group over others) and xenophobia (fear or even loathing of external groups). Again, this is a result of centuries of evolution. It made sense for our ancestors to stay away from anything or anyone different, as it may pose a threat to our well-being. At the same time, since we feel more secure with our in-group, it makes sense to pay attention to them rather than other people. In a family, a father instinctively understands to protect their children from strangers and favour them over other children, despite us being the same humans. This is due to families belonging their own Group Tent.

Left on its own, tribal tendencies are beneficial in the perseverance of a society or species. There is nothing inherently wrong with being tribal; it’s part of what humans are.

Seeds of viciousness: in-group bias

However, we’ve seen genocides on mass scales such as the Holocaust and the 1965 Communist Purge. Those events serve as a reminder that, given the right ingredients, tribalism is a destructive force. But how do groups become violent?

When discussing how groupish tendencies can lead to violence, a nice text to start with is Waller’s Becoming Evil [book]. In Chapters 6 and 7, Waller explains how certain group traits can be amplified with the help of ideology.

First, we start with the “grouping effect”, or the precursor to the categorical view of the world and the people in it. In other words, we start to reinforce our existing ethnocentric and xenophobic traits. An example would be Sayyid Qutb’s view of the world as being a “world of Islam (Dar al-Islam)” and a “world of war (Dar al-Harb)”, where Islam is the only right group, while the others are inferior. If it sounds familiar, it mirrors Hitler’s Nazi propaganda. There are three effects that “grouping” has:


  1. Assumed similarity: we tend to assume that members of the in-group are more similar to us, even though there may be no direct similarities. 
  2. Out-group homogeneity: we tend to draw generalisations of the out-group (stereotyping), which feed our xenophobia.
  3. Accentuation effect: we emphasise the “lines” drawn between us and them. This results in a bias which favours news about our differences (i.e. Mexicans are stealing our jobs) and makes us less attentive to news about our similarities (i.e. Mexicans are humans too).

These effects can be further amplified when the society has the characteristics of high uncertainty avoidance and high power distances (see Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, to be discussed in a later post), which result in the group favouring authority orientation. In other words, when given a charismatic leader (think Hitler), the grouping effect becomes more vivid and focused. Furthermore, societies favouring authority orientation tend to not question authority and think critically about what their leaders tell them to do. As Waller puts it,

In a culture that inculcates an excessively strong authority orientation, however, it is less likely that individuals will oppose leaders who scapegoat, or advocate violence against, a particular target group. (Waller, p. 179)

Constructing the ‘other’

Of course, we may have a tendentious leader and a group that absolutely despises people who are not in the same group, but that alone is only part of the equation. The Inner Baduy people of Indonesia are a tight-knit group that doesn’t like outsiders, yet they haven’t killed anyone. A violent ideology teaches people why they’re miserable, who to blame for their misery, and why violence is the way out.For now, we’ve only reached part 1 of the equation. The second part is finding out who to blame, which plays on our xenophobia and ethnocentrism.

In reality, it’s really hard for a human to actually have the guts to kill another person. As shown in experiments conducted by Grossman, it’s harder to kill someone with a knife (melee weapon) than it is compared to killing them with a Predator drone (long-range precision strike weapon). Unless the person in question is a psychopath, it is not in our nature to bring harm upon our own species, no matter how different they may be. Thus, first, the group needs to psychologically distance the other, followed by moral disengagement. Add some hate, and our recipe for mass genocide or religiously-motivated terrorism is almost complete.

How do we distance the ‘other’? Waller speaks of a condition of social death, which refers to a condition where the out-group is socially ‘killed’. This can take form in a form of physical separation, such as separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks; social dominance, such as the act of owning a black slave; excommunicating the target group so they are disenfranchised; or subjecting them to continuous dishonour, like with racial insults or demeaning treatment. In the case of Jihadi terrorism, distancing is mostly done by drawing a strict line between believers and kafir (infidels), and through continuous framing of infidels as being the scum of the earth.

From here, we have part of the recipe needed to start terrorism. Usually, we need to hate someone before we start morally disengaging ourselves and contemplating murder. There are three components of hate according to Sternberg’s triangular model of hate:


Sternberg’s triangular hate model (Source: Sternberg)


  1. Negation of intimacy: distancing yourself from the thing you hate and not allowing it to come anywhere close to you (i.e. building a wall to stop Mexicans from coming in)
  2. Passion: intense fear or anger towards the out-group (i.e. Mexicans are stealing our jobs)
  3. Decision/commitment: “cognitions of devaluation and diminution toward the target group” or contempt towards the out-group.

Sternberg notes several types of hate that emerge from combining the three different nodes of the triangle, however, the most dangerous type of hate is what Sternberg terms “burning hate“. This type of hate is what often drives people to physically hurt someone.

However, it should be recognised that hate alone is only part of the equation. Before actually killing someone, a person needs to morally disengage themselves. Waller defines moral disengagement as

an active, but gradual, process of detachment by which some individuals or groups are placed outside the boundary within which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply. (Waller, p. 202)

In other words, since the out-group are already “non-humans” (outside the boundaries of the in-group), there no reason NOT to kill them. In the case of Jihadism, killing the out-group is a good deed in the eyes of the in-group.

How do we achieve moral disengagement? Waller lists 3 ways to morally disengage:

  1. Moral justification: violence is portrayed as serving socially worthy or morally correct purposes. In the case of violent extremism, killing infidels is okay because God said it was okay and it’s for the sake of cleaning the earth for the establishment of the caliphate. Moral justification can also be built upon feelings of victimisation. This is often visible in the rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki and Imam Samudra, both who feel that Muslims have been continuously victimised by the Alliance of Evil (U.S., NATO and Israel).
  2. Dehumanisation: the act of associating the out-group as being less than humans, which puts victims outside our known sphere of responsibility and morality. Or in other words, since they aren’t humans, we can do whatever we want with them. This is prevalent across many examples of violence, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the Hutus called the Tutsis “cockroaches”. Extreme dehumanisation occurs when the out-group is perceived to be the source of all ills in the world. It is important to achieve the social death of the other group and ensuring effective social distancing
  3. Euphemistic labelling of evil actions: basically, replacing the word “kill”, which invokes negative images, to other “softer” words. George Carlin did an amazing sketch on this when he talked about how “shellshock” became “post-traumatic stress disorder”. The CIA doesn’t “kill” people; they “neutralise” them. In the case of religiously-motivated terrorism, terrorists aren’t “killing” people; they’re “cleaning”. Or, they don’t “blow themselves up”; they “die as a martyr”.

Finally, there’s also an additional dimension to moral disengagement, which is the belief that the out-group deserves what’s coming to them. Waller brings up a variance of the classic Milgram experiment. Two groups of people watch a peer get electric shocks (of course, it was an actor) when she answered a wrong question. The first group was told they could stop the shocks after the first ten-minute session, while the other group was told they had no control over the shocks. The first group identified more positively with the peer, but the other group tended to rationalise her getting shocked over and over again (somewhere along the lines of “it’s her fault for agreeing to this shit”.)

The bottom line…

  • Ethnocentrism and xenophobia are natural human traits that have been around due to evolution. It was beneficial for our ancestors for their survival. On their own, these traits can be helpful, but when fuelled by ideology and hate, it can drive violence.
  • “Us vs. them” thinking, added with social death, burning hate, and moral disengagement drive humans to kill others.







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