Nafees Hamid, Clara Pretus, Scott Atran, Molly J. Crockett, Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Adolf Tobeña, Susanna Carmona, Angel Gómez, Richard Davis, and Oscar Vilarroya

Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate

The Royal Society


Violent intergroup conflicts are often motivated by commitments to abstract ideals such as god or nation, so-called ‘sacred’ values that are insensitive to material trade-offs. There is scant knowledge of how the brain processes costly sacrifices for such cherished causes. We studied willingness to fight and die for sacred values in Barcelona, Spain, among supporters of a radical Islamist group. We measured brain activity in radicalized individuals as they indicated their willingness to fight and die for sacred and non-sacred values, and as they reacted to peers' ratings for the same values. We found that supporters expressed greater willingness to fight and die and responded more quickly to sacred than non-sacred values. Our results cohere with a view that ‘devoted actors’ motivated by an extreme commitment towards sacred values rely on distinctive neurocognitve processes.