Evolution and Human Adaptation Program
skip to main content


Cultural Values and Terrorism

Culture and Cognition Lecture Series for Winter Term, 2005

This lecture series was organized by Scott Atran.

Scientists and others given to the importance of reason and rational decision making frequently underestimate the strength of cultural values and emotions. But people's deepest yearnings often encompass aspects of what some of our speakers consider to be culturally sacred or protected values (Medin, Fischhoff, Atran), perhaps with a privileged relationship to a universal commonsense belief in the "soul" or "spirit" (Bloom). These can be critical in generating and sustaining seemingly intractable social conflicts. Unlike mundane values, sacred values do not seem to be very sensitive to calculations of cost and benefit, to quantity or to tradeoffs - a fact ignored in risk-assessment models that drive, for example, much counter-terrorism thinking. Planning and acting in ignorance or disregard of different value frameworks may thus exacerbate conflict, with grievous loss of national treasure and lives.

Almost all of us have an almost insatiable desire to be treated with consideration and respect. For those who have had direct experience interviewing people engaged in terrorism - as some of our speakers have (Stern, Sageman, Atran) - the set of thoughts and feelings that impress as being most significant in generating terrorist violence has to do with experiences of humiliation and disrespect. Such experiences arguably challenge naturally-selected desires that underpin yearnings for consideration and respect, and trigger evolved responses to their lack of fulfilment, such as vengeance. Terror-sponsoring organizations manage to push responses even further - for example, in turning economically sufficient, educated and well-adjusted individuals into suicide bombers who seek vengeance even at the cost of their own lives. Charismatic leaders manipulate and extend evolved longings for kinship (brotherhood), dignity (status) and even love (sexual communion) towards culturally value-laden ends that override and even negate members' self interests (while still benefiting the manipulating organization and their elites). Knowing how this is done may be a first and necessary step to offering would-be terrorists and their supporting publics alternative ways to socialize their needs and passions and to express their grievances.

Scott Atran, Psychology, University of Michigan
Psychological and Social Roots of Terrorism
January 7th,
Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Baruch Fischoff, Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University
Value and Risk
January 14th, Friday 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Douglas Medin, Psychology, Northwestern University
Sacred Values
January 21st, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Jessica Stern, Political Science, Harvard University
Terrorism: Origin of Concepts
January 27th, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Paul Bloom, Psychology, Yale University
Dualism in Human Nature
February 4th, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Marc Sageman, Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania
The Group Dynamics of Global Terrorism
February 11th, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Charles B. Strozier, History, John Jay School of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York
The World Trade Center Disaster and the Apocalyptic
February 18th, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

Ray Jackendoff, Linguistics, Brandeis University
Alternative Minimalist Visions of Language
March 25th, Friday, 9 am, 4448 East Hall

 E H A P Sponsors