Humans are capable of believing in the (seemingly) absurd - beyond reason and evidence. This kind of single-minded devotion has led to some of our greatest achievements. Yet, as my research shows, devotion also has a dark side:
In summary, single-minded devotion to a cause can drive us to achieve greater good, but it can also get us to commit evil against others.
The complete list of my publications with citations and h-index is available here.
- In conflict situations, contested resources can become sacralized (e.g., holy land), especially, when the force of religion is brought to bear (Judgment and Decision Making, 2012).
- In those cases, people comes to consider their group interests as sacred values, making them resistant to rational conflict resolution (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2013).
- Once group interests are sacralized, they can motivate extreme self-sacrifice (Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015), particularly in those who are part of a "band of brothers" (a group of kin-like friends, organized around a common cause, Current Anthropology, 2016).
- Social exclusion can exacerbate the willingness to make extreme sacrifices for a cause - including fighting and dying for it (Frontiers in Psychology, 2018).
- Decisions to make extreme sacrifices for a cause are not processed in the same brain regions that are involved in cost-benefit analysis, but instead in regions that are associated with principles and rules (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2019).
In summary, single-minded devotion to a cause can drive us to achieve greater good, but it can also get us to commit evil against others.
The complete list of my publications with citations and h-index is available here.
Publications (with abstracts)
Hamid, N., Pretus, C., Atran, S., Crockett, M. J., Ginges, J., Sheikh, H., ... & Vilarroya, O. (2019). Neuroimaging ‘Will to Fight’ For Sacred Values: An Empirical Case Study With Supporters of an Al Qaeda Associate. Royal Society Open Science, 6(6), 181585.
Violent intergroup conflicts are often motivated by commitments to abstract ideals such as god or nation, socalled ‘sacred’ values that are insensitive to material tradeoffs. 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 using fMRI 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 nonsacred values, and as they reacted to peers’ ratings for the same values. We observed diminished activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), inferior frontal gyrus, and parietal cortex while conveying willingness to fight and die for sacred relative to non-sacred values—regions that have previously been implicated in calculating costs and consequences. An overlapping region of the dlPFC was active when viewing conflicting ratings of sacred values from peers, to the extent participants were sensitive to peer influence, suggesting that it is possible to induce flexibility in the way people defend sacred values. Our results cohere with a view that ‘devoted actors’ motivated by an extreme commitment towards sacred values rely on distinctive neurocognitve processes that can be identified.
Sheikh, H., & Hirschfeld, L. A. (2019). Collections, collectives, and individuals: Preschoolers’ attributions of intentionality. Cognition, 190, 99-104.
Given the complexity of our social worlds, humans must develop the ability to make nuanced interpretations of behavior, including the ability to infer an actor’s intentions from perceptual properties of an actor’s movements. Consistent with the common perception of a group as a single collective entity and the use of singular nouns to refer to groups, such as a clan, family, team, army, herd, hive, or a gaggle, Bloom and Veres (1999) found that adults attribute intentionality to groups to the same extent that they do to single entities. This study examines the developmental course of both these phenomena by examining the performance of adults and preschoolers on an adaptation of Bloom and Veres’ task. Our results show that preschoolers, like adults, readily attribute intentions to a group and that the more they do so, the more they perceive the group as a single collective entity. This effect is largely mediated by increased attributions of goal-directed action and, to a lesser extent by attributions of mental states, consistent with the claim that purposeful, coordinated action makes a collection of individuals conceptually coalesce into an entity.
Pretus, C., Hamid, N., Sheikh, H., Gómez, Á., Ginges, J., Tobeña, A., ... & Atran, S. (2019). Ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal interactions underlie will to fight and die for a cause. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience.
Willingness to fight and die (WFD) has been developed as a measure to capture willingness to incur costly sacrifices for the sake of a greater cause in the context of entrenched conflict. WFD measures have been repeatedly used in field studies, including studies on the battlefield, although their neurofunctional correlates remain unexplored. Our aim was to identify the neural underpinnings of WFD, focusing on neural activity and interconnectivity of brain areas previously associated with value-based decision-making, such as the ventromedial and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. A sample of Pakistani participants supporting the Kashmiri cause was selected and invited to participate in an fMRI paradigm where they were asked to convey their willingness to fight and die for a series of values related to Islam and current politics. As predicted, higher compared to lower WFD was associated with increased ventromedial prefrontal activity and decreased dorsolateral activity, as well as lower connectivity between the ventromedial and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Our findings suggest that WFD more prominently relies on brain areas typically associated with subjective value (vmPFC) rather than integration of material costs (dlPFC) during decision-making, supporting the notion that decisions on costly sacrifices may not be mediated by cost-benefit computation.
Pretus, C., Hamid, N., Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., Tobeña, A., Davis, R., ... & Atran, S. (2018). Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Sacred Values and Vulnerability to Violent Extremism. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2462.
Violent extremism is often explicitly motivated by commitment to abstract ideals such as the nation or divine law—so-called “sacred” values that are relatively insensitive to material incentives and define our primary reference groups. Moreover, extreme pro-group behavior seems to intensify after social exclusion. This fMRI study explores underlying neural and behavioral relationships between sacred values, violent extremism, and social exclusion. Ethnographic fieldwork and psychological surveys were carried out among 535 young men from a European Muslim community in neighborhoods in and around Barcelona, Spain. Candidates for an fMRI experiment were selected from those who expressed willingness to engage in or facilitate, violence associated with jihadist causes; 38 of whom agreed to be scanned. In the scanner, participants were assessed for their willingness to fight and die for in-group sacred values before and after an experimental manipulation using Cyberball, a toss ball game known to yield strong feelings of social exclusion. Results indicate that neural activity associated with sacred value processing in a sample vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremism shows marked activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus, a region previously associated with sacred values and rule retrieval. Participants also behaviorally expressed greater willingness to fight and die for sacred versus nonsacred values, consistent with previous studies of combatants and noncombatants. The social exclusion manipulation specifically affected nonsacred values, increasing their similarities with sacred values in terms of heightened left inferior frontal activity and greater expressed willingness to fight and die. These findings suggest that sacralization of values interacts with willingness to engage in extreme behavior in populations vulnerable to radicalization. In addition, social exclusion may be a relevant factor motivating violent extremism and consolidation of sacred values. If so, counteracting social exclusion and sacralization of values should figure into policies to prevent radicalization.
Atran, S., Waziri, H., Gomez, A., Sheikh, H., Lopez-Rodrigues, L., Rogan, C., & Davis, R. (2018). The Islamic State’s Lingering Legacy Among Young Men from the Mosul Area. CTC Sentinel, 11(4), 15-22.
After expulsion of Islamic State forces from Mosul, Iraq’s government declared the country “fully liberated” and the Islamic State “defeated.” But field interviews and non-threatening psychological experiments with young Sunni Arab men from the Mosul area indicate that the Islamic State may have lost its “caliphate,” but not necessarily the allegiance of supporters of both a Sunni Arab homeland and governance by sharia law. These continued supporters of some Islamic State core values appear more willing to make costly sacrifices for these values than those who value a unified Iraq. Nearly all study participants rejected democracy, and expressed unwillingness to tradeoff values for material gain. Thus, rather than relying on implementation of Western values or material incentives to undercut (re)radicalization, the findings suggest that alternative interpretations of local society’s core values could be leveraged as ‘wedge issues’ to better divide groups such as the Islamic State from supporting populations.
Gómez, Á., López-Rodríguez, L., Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., Wilson, L., Waziri, H., Vazquez, A. Davis, R., & Atran, S. (2017). The Devoted Actor’s Will to Fight and the Spiritual Dimension of Human Conflict. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(9), 673-679.
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.
Sheikh, H., Gómez, Á., & Atran, S. (2016). Empirical evidence for the devoted actor model. Current Anthropology, 57(S13), S204-S209.
This report presents two studies in very different contexts that provide convergent empirical evidence for the “devoted actor” hypothesis: people will become willing to protect nonnegotiable sacred values through costly sacrifice and extreme actions when such values are associated with groups whose individual members fuse into a unique collective identity. We interviewed and tested (on sacred values, identity fusion, and costly sacrifice) 260 Moroccans from two cities and neighborhoods previously associated with militant jihad, and we conducted a follow-up online experiment with 644 Spaniards fairly representative of the country at large (adding an intergroup formidability outcome measure). Moroccans expressed willingness to make costly sacrifices for implementation of strict sharia and were most supportive of militant jihad when they were fused with a kin-like group of friends and considered sharia law as sacred. Similarly, Spaniards who were fused with a kin-like group of friends and considered democracy as sacred were most willing to make costly sacrifices for democracy after being reminded of jihadi terrorism, and they were also more likely to consider their own group more formidable and jihadis as weak.
Ginges, J., Sheikh, H., Atran, S., & Argo, N. (2016). Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(2), 316-319.
Religious belief is often thought to motivate violence because it is said to promote norms that encourage tribalism and the devaluing of the lives of nonbelievers. If true, this should be visible in the multigenerational violent conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which is marked by a religious divide. We conducted experiments with a representative sample of Muslim Palestinian youth (n = 555), examining whether thinking from the perspective of Allah (God), who is the ultimate arbitrator of religious belief, changes the relative value of Jewish Israelis’ lives (compared with Palestinian lives). Participants were presented with variants of the classic “trolley dilemma,” in the form of stories where a man can be killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish Israeli or Palestinian. They responded from their own perspective and from the perspective of Allah. We find that whereas a large proportion of participants were more likely to endorse saving Palestinian children than saving Jewish Israeli children, this proportion decreased when thinking from the perspective of Allah. This finding raises the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.
Atran, S., & Sheikh, H. (2015). Dangerous terrorists as devoted actors. In Evolutionary perspectives on social psychology (pp. 401-416). Springer, Cham.
Recent cross-cultural experiments and fieldwork related to violent extremism in hotspots around the world suggest that the most dangerous and effective terrorists today are “devoted actors.” Devoted actors are chiefly motivated by “sacred values” (SVs), which are operationally identified in terms of immunity or resistance to material trade-offs, to normative social influence, and to exit strategies. Devoted actors are particularly likely to make costly and extreme sacrifices in defense of SVs when their personal identities are “fused” with the collective identity of a primary reference group, such as a tight-knit religious “brotherhood” of imagined kin. There is an evolutionary rationale for the willingness to make costly sacrifices (e.g., death) for the group. When a perceived outside threat to one’s primary reference group is very high, and survival prospects very low, then only if sufficiently many members of a group are endowed with such a willingness to extreme sacrifice can the group hope to parry stronger but less devoted enemies. SVs mobilized for collective action by devoted actors enable outsize commitment in low-power groups to resist and often prevail against materially more powerful foes who depend on standard material incentives, such as armies and police that rely on pay and promotion. Recent changes in the composition of some terrorist groups from fairly well-educated and well-off founders to increasingly marginalized youth in transitional stages of life follow this evolutionary rationale.
Atran, S., Sheikh, H., & Gomez, A. (2014). Devoted actors sacrifice for close comrades and sacred cause. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(50), 17702-17703.
What inspires the willingness of humans to make their greatest exertions, to fight unto death with and for genetic strangers, a propensity to which no creature but humans seems subject? What determines the “fighting spirit” that enables one group of combatants to defeat another, all other things being equal? These are basic questions about human nature and warfare that an article by Whitehouse et al. endeavors to address (1). However, that article’s arguments also bear directly on some of the world’s current and most pressing crises. Thus, in recent remarks, President Obama (2) endorsed the judgment of his US National Intelligence Director: “We underestimated the Viet Cong… we underestimated ISIL [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army…. It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable” (3). However, if Whitehouse et al.’s (1) measures and findings are reliable and right, predicting who is willing to fight and who isn’t could be ponderable indeed.
Sheikh, H., Atran, S., Ginges, J., Wilson, L., Obeid, N., & Davis, R. (2014). The devoted actor as parochial altruist: Sectarian morality, identity fusion, and support for costly sacrifices. Cliodynamics, 5(1).
We explore how Darwinian notions of moral virtue and parochial altruism may relate to the emerging cognitive framework of the devoted actor who undertakes extreme actions in defense of group values. After a brief discussion of the theoretical framework, we present exploratory data resulting from interviews of 62 Lebanese individuals of varying religious backgrounds (Sunni, Shia and Christian) in Beirut and Byblos (Jbeil) in a time of heightened tension owing to spillover from the Syrian civil war. Analytic measures focused on willingness to make costly sacrifices for confessional (religious) groups and sectarian values, as a function of the degree to which people perceived universal and parochial values to be morally important, and considered their personal selves “fused” with their group. Sectarian moralists who fused with their religion expressed strong willingness to support costly sacrifices for the group, whereas people who fused with their religion but moralized universal values over sectarian ones were least likely to support costly sacrifices. In addition, when people believed that they had control over their future, fusion increased support for costly sacrifice and desired social distance to outgroups. These results have implications for notions of religion as both a booster and buffer to costly sacrifices, and the impact of identity fusion for and against extreme actions.
Atran, S., Sheikh, H., & Gomez, A. (2014). For cause and comrade: Devoted actors and willingness to fight. Cliodynamics, 5(1).
This report provides initial evidence that “devoted actors” who are unconditionally committed to a sacred cause, as well as to their comrades, willingly make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying. Although American military analysts since WWII tend to attribute fighting spirit to leadership and the bond of comradeship in combat as a manifestation of rational self-interest, evidence also suggests that sacrifice for a cause in ways independent, or all out of proportion, from the reasonable likelihood of success may be critical. Here, we show the first empirical evidence that sacred values (as when land or law becomes holy or hallowed) and identity fusion (when personal and group identities collapse into a unique identity to generate a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny) can interact to produce willingness to make costly sacrifices for a primary reference group: by looking at the relative strength of the sacred values of Sharia versus Democracy among potential foreign fighter volunteers from Morocco. Devotion to a sacred cause, in conjunction with unconditional commitment to comrades, may be what allows low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially stronger foes.
Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., & Atran, S. (2013). Sacred values in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: resistance to social influence, temporal discounting, and exit strategies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1299(1), 11-24.
Conflicts over sacred values may be particularly difficult to resolve. Because sacred values are nonfungible with material values, standard attempts to negotiate, such as offering material incentives to compromise, often backfire, increasing moral outrage and support for violent action. We present studies with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza demonstrating three other ways sacred values may make conflict more intractable, focusing on what we call devoted actors, people who regard issues central to the Israel–Palestine conflict as sacred values. We show that devoted actors (1) were less amenable to social influence, (2) perceived conflict‐related events in the past as well as expected events in the future to be temporally closer, and (3) were blind to individual opportunities to escape the conflict. These results suggest that sacred values may affect decision making in a number of ways, which, when combined, contribute to common defense and continuation of conflict.
Jassin, K., Sheikh, H., Obeid, N., Argo, N., & Ginges, J. (2013). Negotiating cultural conflicts over sacred values. In Models for Intercultural Collaboration and Negotiation (pp. 133-143). Springer, Dordrecht.
Most current approaches to negotiation of resource and political conflicts assume that parties to these conflicts are rational actors that weigh the costs and benefits of their choices, treat values as though they are fungible, and then act in a way that maximizes their benefits. However, recent research suggests that this is not the case. In other words, people do not treat all values as amenable to tradeoffs, but rather they distinguish between material values having to do with resource pricing and markets and sacred values that reside in the moral realm. Moreover, people seem to apply different reasoning to sacred vs. material values. Even more crucially, what is considered sacred and what is considered material varies among cultures. In this chapter we discuss research by us and others into the nature of sacred values in real world conflicts and the implications of the findings for ongoing political conflicts.
Leidner, B., Sheikh, H., & Ginges, J. (2012). Affective dimensions of intergroup humiliation. PLoS One, 7(9), e46375.
Despite the wealth of theoretical claims about the emotion of humiliation and its effect on human relations, there has been a lack of empirical research investigating what it means to experience humiliation. We studied the affective characteristics of humiliation, comparing the emotional experience of intergroup humiliation to two other emotions humiliation is often confused with: anger and shame. The defining characteristics of humiliation were low levels of guilt and high levels of other-directed outrage (like anger and unlike shame), and high levels of powerlessness (like shame and unlike anger). Reasons for the similarities and differences of humiliation with anger and shame are discussed in terms of perceptions of undeserved treatment and injustice. Implications for understanding the behavioral consequences of humiliation and future work investigating the role of humiliation in social life are discussed.
Sheikh, H., Ginges, J., Coman, A., & Atran, S. (2012). Religion, group threat and sacred values. Judgment and Decision Making, 7(2), 110.
Sacred or protected values have important influences on decision making, particularly in the context of intergroup disputes. Thus far, we know little about the process of a value becoming sacred or why one person may be more likely than another to hold a sacred value. We present evidence that participation in religious ritual and perceived threat to the group lead people to be more likely to consider preferences as protected or sacred values. Specifically, three studies carried out with Americans and Palestinians show:(a) that the more people participate in religious ritual the more likely they are to report a preference to be a sacred value (Studies 1–3);(b) that people claim more sacred values when they are reminded of religious ritual (Study 2); and (c) that the effect of religious ritual on the likelihood of holding a sacred value is amplified by the perception of high threat to the in-group (Study 3). We discuss implications of these findings for understanding intergroup conflicts, and suggest avenues for future research into the emergence and spread of sacred values.
Braun, E. M., Sheikh, H., & Hannover, B. (2011). Self‐rated competences and future vocational success: a longitudinal study. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(4), 417-427.
Today, a major goal in higher education is the advancement of students’ vocational competences. To assess the extent to which this goal is met, both competences acquired during university studies and later vocational success need to be measured. In our study, we collected self‐ratings of competences (t1) and indicators of vocational success (t2) in 210 alumni of the Freie Universität Berlin. Using structural equation models along with this longitudinal data, we found that self‐ratings of competences accounted for a substantial proportion of the variance in different measures of vocational success five years later.
O’Connell, M., & Sheikh, H. (2011). ‘Big Five’ personality dimensions and social attainment: Evidence from beyond the campus. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(6), 828-833.
Research on the contribution of personality traits to attainment has focused heavily on grades among college students. Conscientiousness emerges consistently as the most powerful personality dimension. However, while university students are a convenient group to study, there remain questions about the generalizability, and utility of examining the link between personality and attainment, in a group that consists mainly of educational high-achievers who have not yet earned an income. In this study, data were instead drawn from a more diverse and representative sample gathered in the British National Child Development Study (NCDS). Regression analyses indicated that, in the general population compared to student samples, Openness and Emotional Stability are stronger predictors of educational attainment and earnings than conscientiousness.
O’Connell, M., & Sheikh, H. (2009). Non‐cognitive abilities and early school dropout: longitudinal evidence from NELS. Educational studies, 35(4), 475-479.
Educational success is often synonymous with attainment of academic qualifications. However for some students, simply continuing to attend school rather than dropping out may represent an important attainment, and completion of secondary school significantly reduces chances of subsequent chronic poverty. The longitudinal US NELS dataset was assessed to examine predictors of dropout. Results supported a differentiated perspective of student outcomes whereby dropout before Grade 12 was predicted far less by prior academic achievement in Grade 8 than academic achievement in Grade 12, and to a greater extent by non‐cognitive measures such as daily school preparation, planning and subjective peer perception. Cognitive ability measures are known to correlate well with academic achievement but “non‐cognitive abilities” may have an important role in the prediction of persistence, especially among marginalised students.
O’Connell, M., & Sheikh, H. (2008). Achievement-related Attitudes and the Fate of “At-risk” Groups in Society. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(4), 508-521.
What causes poverty and how does an individual escape it? Factors such as intelligence and social class background are thought to be important. However, a number of economists have argued that an individual’s profile of achievement-related attitudes (ARAs) like work-orientation and conscientiousness might play a role in social success and failure. Part of their attraction is that these attitudes are regarded as responsive to nurturing and may be especially significant for those individuals with few formal skills to offer the labour market. The NCDS longitudinal dataset was interrogated to assess whether ARAs predicted an individual’s earnings measured almost two decades later. Results indicated that ARAs explain a good deal of variance in earnings, particularly for “at-risk” males. Social policy implications are discussed.
O’Connell, M., & Sheikh, H. (2007). Growth in career earnings and the role of achievement-related traits. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28(5), 590-605.
What are the determinants of success or failure in people’s career? Both individual and environmental factors such as intelligence and school quality have been proposed as key factors. However, a number of researchers, particularly economists, have argued that ‘non-cognitive traits’, or achievement-related traits (ARTs) like persistence and leadership may be important. Part of their attraction is that these sorts of traits are regarded as far more malleable than intelligence. Regression analyses have found that ARTs play a significant role in explaining variance in career outcome. In this analysis, the NCDS longitudinal dataset is interrogated to assess whether ARTs, and other measures, make a contribution to the explanation of variance in growth in earnings over a substantial period in an individual’s career. Specifically, the change in earnings of approximately 11,000 respondents between the age of 33 and 42 is used as the dependent variable. Only a very modest amount of variance was explained and this by a small number of ARTs rather than more widely recognised predictors. It may be noted that individual characteristics are decisive in determining a career path but once the path is chosen, structural and societal factors then assume a more powerful determining role.