One of the arguments that Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler make in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, is that we are not very good at accurately gauging the motivational reasons behind the actions of ourselves and others. We tend to look for large ideological and rational explanations for our behavior and the behavior of others. We often overlook simpler explanations of self-interest in favor of more high minded reasons for behavior.
If we recognize that we do a poor job of understanding the motivation of ourselves and others, then it is not surprising to learn that our assumptions of terrorist motivations are also often wrong. Steven Pinker demonstrates this in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker specifically looks at suicide bomb terrorists and our general assumption that they are motivated by pure religious beliefs. This assumption, according to Pinker, is incomplete for many suicide bomb terrorists. Pinker writes,
“Using interviews with failed and prospective suicide terrorists, the anthropologist Scott Atran has refuted many common misconceptions about them. Far from being ignorant, impoverished, nihilistic, or mentally ill, suicide terrorists tend to be educated, middle class, morally engaged, and free of obvious psychopathy. Atran concluded that many of the motives may be found in nepotistic altruism.”
Pinker shows that there are a lot of pedestrian motivations for why individuals become suicide terrorists. Their motivation is not always a fervent ideological belief or hope for a spiritual reward of heavenly virgins. Pinker references Atran to show that some suicide terrorists are given the opportunity to have their debt cleared for future generations by going through with a suicide operation. Some suicide terrorists have had families kidnapped and threatened if the suicide bomber doesn’t go through with a bombing. Some terrorist groups offer substantial money to the surviving family members of the suicide terrorists. These monetary and family life motivations are what Atran refers to as nepotistic altruism.
We frequently make assumptions about others and about what motivates them. We make fun of others based on our assumptions, dismiss them, and are surprised to learn that our assumptions can be wrong. We are surprised when we see someone do something awful for motivations that we share with them. When we fail to understand motivation, we fail to understand what types of policies, rewards, and punishments might be useful in changing behaviors. It is important that we accept that we don’t fully understand the motivations of others and work to improve our perspectives so that we can better shape society to prevent things like suicide bomb terrorism.