Terrorist Motivations

Terrorist Motivations

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.
Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Over time human beings have become more peaceful. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains that much of the reduction of violence between humans has been influenced by the institutions we create to govern, organize, and structure our societies, relationships, and human to human interactions. Without institutions to help pacify humans, violence would be an easy and convenient solution to many of our problems.
Pinker uses anti-war sentiment to show how important institutions are in making people less violent. He writes, “to gain traction, antiwar sentiments have to infect many constituencies at the same time. And they have to be grounded in economic and political institutions, so that the war-averse outlook doesn’t depend on everyone’s deciding to become and stay virtuous.” We can praise virtuous monks, we can admire peaceful protestors, and we can hold conscientious war objectors in high regard, but if political and economic institutions do not align with peace, then anti-war sentiment won’t grow beyond these few groups. It is easy to say that humans should all be kind, peaceful, and considerate of others, but without the right institutions, virtues don’t matter much.
People don’t like admitting that their behaviors are driven by large structural and institutional factors. We like to imagine that we are good individuals and that our conscious choices and decisions are what drive our behaviors. We see ourselves as deserving of good things and criminals and deviants as deserving of bad things because of individual choices in life. When we think about the world becoming a less violent place (if we think about that at all) we imagine it is because we are part of a new breed of humans who are more civilized, smarter, less impulsive, and more valuing of human life. Some of that may be true, but if so, it is not something special about humans today but likely something about the institutions we have built which have changed us and our social worlds.
Pinker’s anti-war sentiment quote shows how that is true. It is hard for a population to become overwhelmingly peaceful and anti-war when their neighbor has invaded their country (as we see in Ukraine now). It is hard to favor peace when your own economy is a train wreck and invading your neighbor will give your economy a boost through natural resources (perhaps as we see with Russia). If violence is a quick and easy way to boost your economy and the institutions surrounding you don’t punish you for violence, then you have fewer incentives to be peaceful and anti-war. Institutions, incentives, and larger political and economic structural factors matter – often more than individual virtuosity.
Explaining Nazi Violence During a Time of Civilizing Processes

Explaining Nazi Violence During a Time of Civilizing Processes

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about German sociologist Norbert Elias and his theory of civilization. Over time, people became less impulsive, less disgusting, and more civilized, and this trend toward civilization among people corresponded with declines in violence between people. For Elias, a decline in violence was a result of increased civility among human beings.
But Elias was writing in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, a country controlled by a political power that launched some of the greatest violence the world has ever seen. Elias had to explain how humans became more civil and less violent and how his own country managed to be so awful. Pinker writes, “he documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor among its elites, the breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for groups perceived  to be outsiders…” Pinker goes on to explain that homicide rates and other rates of violence did continue to decline in Nazi Germany while violence toward outsiders and the rest of the world spiked. Pinker affirms that violence and civility continued their inverse relationship through WWII despite German violence and aggression.
I find Pinker’s analysis of the explanations that Elias provides for why Nazi Germany could be so violent at a time of declining violence very interesting. Throughout the book Pinker supports the idea that a militaristic culture of honor can lead to increased violence. When people feel a need to protect their honor via force or equal punishment for slights against their honor, then violence can escalate. When the state loses its control on the use of violence and force, individual vigilantes and armed militias can become dangerously prominent. When people begin to dehumanize other groups and justify violence against them, then pockets of violence can easily erupt. These factors still promote violence in the world today.
Ahmaud Arbery was shot in Georgia, a state in the Southern United States where honor cultures have always persisted to a greater extent than elsewhere in the United States. Perhaps he was in a place he shouldn’t have been, perhaps he had stolen something in the past. But the violence inflicted upon him was a result of a culture of honor that has long persisted and encouraged a sense of vigilantism among Southern Whites. Across 2020 and 2021 in the United States the breakdown of the state monopoly on violence factored into a lot of violence and death. Armed militias killed Black Lives Matter protesters and stormed the Nation’s Capital. These groups certainly appeared to be in part fueled by a lack of empathy for people they perceived as different and other, as somehow wrong and less deserving than themselves. The diagnosis from Elias on why Nazi Germany became so violent seems to be echoed in the recent uptick of violence within the United States.
(Please note that I am not saying the United States today or in the last few years is Nazi Germany. I am simply identifying some factors that explained Nazi Germany violence and asking if they also explain some trends observed today in very different places, times, and settings.)
Deterrence Plus Good Lawful Alternatives

Deterrence Plus Good Lawful Alternatives

I will admit, when I was younger I used to pirate music. Even just a few years back I used to pirate unauthorized video streams online for sporting events I wanted to watch. If you don’t mind some questionable audio and video quality and if you don’t mind hunting around on some sketchy websites for links, then pirating media isn’t a huge challenge. However, I eventually decided that there were enough sufficiently easy to use legal alternatives for tv and music to stop pirating. I generally stream everything through either Spotify or Pandora for music and my Smart TV easily connects with streaming services really for what feels like a fair price.
The lesson from my example is that good lawful alternatives are an effective way to fight against illegal music and tv streaming and downloading. This is an idea that Steven Pinker briefly explores in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature when he writes, “it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing.”
Pinker was not writing about illegal media downloads, rather violent crime in Medieval Europe, but the idea still holds. In my example, tv contracts with cable or satellite that cost well over $100/month for channels I wasn’t going to watch wasn’t wasn’t a good legal alternative for me to watch the sports and occasional cooking shows that I wanted to see. The process for getting services started was cumbersome and the contracts locked me for long terms of service with guaranteed rate increases. Illegal streaming was more appealing even if it had some risk and poor overall quality. In terms of music, my options used to be paying $1 for a song or $10 for an album for a legal download versus illegally downloading songs. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the music (or the tv contract for that matter) but rather that it wasn’t optimal for how I wanted to consume media. Music streaming services now offer a better service for a reasonable price, and I no longer download music illegally. Good legal alternatives changed the incentive structure and ultimately changed my behavior.
But this doesn’t mean that deterrence is unnecessary. Good deterrence can be paired with good lawful alternatives to further shape people’s behaviors in desired directions. A close example to my media piracy and subsequent changes to legal alternatives comes from the world of gaming. Video games can be illegally uploaded online and played on computers or home consoles without an individual purchasing the game. Video game companies have gotten creative with how they combat piracy. Some developers build their games in a way that allows the game to recognize if it has been stolen or is being played on a computer rather than the console it was intended for. In some instances, developers will allow players to reach a set point in the game before preventing further play. This gives the illegal players a chance to experience the game and hopefully want to purchase it to play it all the way through. Rather than making extreme efforts to combat the piracy, these developers accept that some piracy will happen, but rely on providing a good enough product and legal alternative model to obtaining the game to reduce the total amount and overall impact of piracy. They pair reasonable forms of deterrence with good legal alternatives.
This idea is interesting because when we think about crime in the United States at least, our primary response tends to be punishment and deterrence. We don’t often seem to think much about legal alternatives and barriers to legal alternatives. We don’t think reasonably about the trade-offs for escalating deterrence versus accepting some negative behavior and making the most of it like video game companies. Costs, incentive structures, and barriers (like red tape) can make illegal activity more appealing, but we don’t always recognize that. This was true in my illegal music and tv streaming and downloading and Pinker argues it has been true at various points of human history with respect to violence. One explanation that Pinker offers for why humans have become less violent is because we have developed better legal alternatives to obtaining things that humans want and desire. Violence is no longer a great way to ensure you have resources and status. Less violent ways of obtaining such things are now good alternatives through institutional and societal design. This is an important lesson to learn and think about when we are trying to shape people’s behaviors and deter criminal activity. Tough on crime sounds great, but deterrence needs to be paired with good legal alternatives.
Irrational Antagonism - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Irrational Antagonism

In the book Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach was very interested in what space travel does to the human mind. Not necessarily the effects of zero gravity on the mind or the effect of being outside the Earth looking back on the planet, but the effect of being stuck in a small space, where everything is monitored, with other people, and no way to escape it all for 6 months or longer. What Roach learned is that irrational antagonism can set in, putting the whole space voyage at risk.
She writes, “Psychologists use the term irrational antagonism to describe what happens between people isolated together for more than about six weeks.” People stuck in a single spot with only each other to keep them company begin to find petty annoyances in the behaviors of the people they are with. Roach uses a quote from a French anthropologist in the Arctic to demonstrate irrational antagonism. The man came to see the very traits he initially admired about the person he was isolated alongside as annoyances and points of frustration. In other examples, people began to intentionally annoy their isolated compatriots, deliberately doing things they knew would slightly grate the other people. Even close friends can find that they begin to hate the people they are with, to pick small fights with them, or to act out passive aggressively toward them. Cooperation, coordination, and cordiality all break down as small acts of defiance build up.
In 2021 it is safe to say that many of us may have experienced some degree of irrational antagonism in the last year or so. As we have been in varying stages of lockdown across the planet, some of us have effectively been in isolation with a spouse, a roommate, or a family member whose company we genuinely enjoy…at least when we can get away from them for a little while. Humans are social creatures and we seem to desire very close relationships with immediate family members and a handful of friends. At the same time, we seem to also like our space and independence from others, and we like to (at least occasionally) also engage with groups of people, not the same small dyads or clusters. Being able to move about freely and being able to interact with numerous other people seems to help us stay balanced and helps us enjoy the people in our lives. Being too isolated with a limited number of people seems to make us less sociable and less cooperative with others. I’m sure this goes for just about everyone, regardless as to whether we consider ourselves introverts or extroverts. We need connections, both close and distant, to keep us functioning and keep us engaged in a positive sociable manner.
Post-Action Rationalization

Post-Action Rationalization

I have heard people write about a split brain experiment where a participant whose corpus collosum was severed was instructed in one ear, through a pair of headphones, to leave the room they were in because the experiment was over. As the participant stood to leave the room, a researcher asked them why they had gotten up. The participant said they wanted to get something to drink.
This experiment is pretty famous and demonstrates the human ability to rationalize our behaviors even when we really don’t know what prompted us to behave in one way or another. If you have ever been surprised that you had an angry outburst at another person, if you have ever had a gut feeling in an athletic competition, and if you ever forgot something important in a report and been bewildered by your omission, then you have probably engaged in post-action rationalization. You have probably thought back over the event, the mental state you were in, and tried to figure out exactly why you did what you did and not something else.
However, Judea Pearl in The Book of Why would argue that your answer is nothing more than an illusion. Writing about this phenomenon he says:
“Rationalization of actions may be a reconstructive, post-action process. For example, a soccer player may explain why he decided to pass the ball to Joe instead of Charlie, but it is rarely the case that those reasons consciously triggered the action. In the heat of the game, thousands of input signals compete for the player’s attention. The crucial decision is which signals to prioritize, and the reasons can hardly be recalled and articulated.”
Your angry traffic outburst was brought on by a huge number of factors. Your in game decision was not something you paused, thought about, and worked out the physics to perfect before hand. Similarly, your omission on a report was a barely conscious lapse of information. Each of these situations we can rationalize and explain based on several salient factors that come to mind post-action, but that hardly describes how our brain was actually working in the moment.
The brain has to figure out what signals to prioritize and what signals to consciously respond to in order for each of the examples I mentioned to come about. These notions should challenge our ideas of free-will, our beliefs that we can ever truly know ourselves, and our confidence in learning from experience. Pearl explains that he is a determinist who compromises by accepting an illusion of free will. He argues that the illusion I have described with my examples and his quote helps us to experience and navigate the world. We feel that there is something that it is like to be us, that we make our decisions, and we can justify our behaviors, but this is all merely an illusion.
If Pearl is right, then it is a helpful illusion. We can still understand it better, still understand how this illusion is created, sustained, and can be put to the best uses. We might not have a true and authentic self under the illusion. We might not be in control of what the illusion is. But nevertheless, we can shape and mold it, and have a responsibility to do the best with our illusion, even if much of it is post-action rationalization.
Prejudice as an Epistemic Vice - Joe Abittan - Vices of the Mind

Prejudice as an Epistemic Vice

“Prejudice counts as an epistemic attitude insofar as it is an affective posture toward another person’s epistemic credentials,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind. Prejudices inhibit knowledge, deserve reproof, and are attitudes for which individuals can be blameworthy of holding. Therefore, prejudices qualify as epistemic vices.
Cassam continues, “what makes a prejudice a prejudice is that it is an attitude formed and sustained without any proper inquiry into the merits or demerits of its object.” Prejudices  are not based on fact and reality. They are based on incomplete subjective opinions and evaluations of people, places, and things. Generally, a few standout qualities that we either like or dislike are used as justification for our opinions of entire classes and groups, regardless of whether those perceived qualities are indeed real or generalizable to the larger class. Greater consideration might show us that our beliefs are incorrect, that our assumptions are mistaken, and that our perspectives are not generalizable, but prejudices are maintained by an active unwillingness (or an insouciance) to obtain better information.
It is important to note that Cassam’s quote shows that prejudices are not always negative views of people, places, or things. We can be prejudiced to think that something is good or exemplary – think about fancy cars, expensive brands, or your favorite celebrities. What matters with prejudice is not whether we favor of scorn something, but the fact that we adopt inaccurate beliefs via an attitude that hinders knowledge. We could learn more about people, places, and things to better understand their merits and demerits, increasing our knowledge and the knowledge of anyone we share our lessons with. However, prejudiced individuals have an attitude that actively avoids such information, limiting knowledge and preventing transmission of useful information with others. This limitation of knowledge and sustenance of incorrect knowledge is where prejudices become specifically epistemic vices. Understanding this helps us recognize our prejudices (both positive and negative) and helps us also see how we can eliminate them.
Epistemic Character Vices

Epistemic Character Vices

Quassim Cassam explores epistemic vices in his book Vices of the Mind to understand how certain vices can obstruct knowledge and why they matter. Such vices tend to be thinking vices, that is vices that relate to the way we think about and understand the world. They may impact how we view and perceive the world, how we communicate information, or whether we are able to retain and recall information when needed. For example, being closed-minded can inhibit us from taking in an accurate view of the world, being arrogant may prevent us from effectively communicating knowledge about the world, and being careless or easily distracted may limit our ability to remember and recall information.
However, some epistemic vices can also be understood as character vices. Cassam writes, “character vices actually have a dual use: they can be used to characterize a person or they can be used to describe their thinking, either in general or in a particular case.” Character vices are not just behaviors, but ways of being that are typical for a person, that embody some essential aspect of an individual. Instead of just describing an action or behavior to understand its consequence, we can use character vices to understand an entire string of behaviors and actions of an individual, to understand their larger life outcomes.
Wishful thinking is a good example of a character vice that can have dual use. If you watched more college basketball than normal over the course of the pandemic, then by the time the NCAA Tournament started, you may have engaged in wishful thinking, placing a larger bet than you should have on the outcome of some of the games. But being overconfident in a couple of bets and believing that the best possible outcome would truly come to pass is different than being characteristically a wishful thinker. Someone who we describe as a wishful thinker is likely to always see the upsides and believe that things will work out as desired. As a result, they may not be prepared when things go wrong, and may not be able to overcome or avoid obstacles.
Wishful thinking as an epistemic character vice can describe your individual action or it can describe you as a person. Either way, it is helpful to see that epistemic vices can operate on multiple levels. Studying epistemic vices so closely helps us understand our thinking, our behaviors, even our personalities. They help us connect specific behaviors or traits to real-world outcomes, hopefully allowing us to see the harms that can come from actions, behaviors, and traits that obstruct knowledge.
Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

Case Explanations Versus Structural Explanations

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam asks whether we can understand the behaviors of an individual based on individual characteristics or if we have to rely on larger structural and systemic explanations for their behavior. The question is important for Cassam because his book focuses on epistemic vices, which are vices that get in the way of knowledge. If such vices change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways, then they are something we should think about and work to change in ourselves and others. If, however, they don’t make a difference in people’s behaviors because larger structural explanations exist, then they are not worthy of our attention.
Given that Cassam wrote an entire book about epistemic vices, it is not surprising that he believes that they are useful in explaining behavior. He writes, “Epistemic vices are obstacles to knowledge that can in appropriate cases explain how people think and what they do. Sometimes, though, structural or systemic explanations are better.” This sentence feels a little weak, as though Cassam is admitting that epistemic vices can take a back seat to structural factors. However, the sentence is a useful summation of how we should think about individual level factors and larger structural and systemic factors.
Our lives are shaped to a great degree by large structural and systemic forces that are beyond our control. Family structures drive specific types of behaviors. Markets produce predictable outcomes. The rules of a sport determine what actions can and cannot be taken. However, within these larger structures and systems there is room for individual variation. Cassam’s argument is that we can understand some of the individual variation within larger structures by understanding epistemic vices.
Case explanations can include individual choices, characteristics, and epistemic virtues and vices to help us understand behavior. These explanations can be built on top of structural and systemic explanations which shape the range of possibilities and narrow some of the individual variations. We cannot entirely define someone by their individual choices and differences, but we can view them within a system and ask how their choices within a system differed from others, whether their differences were positive or negative, and why.


“Situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors,” writes Quassim Cassam to quote John Doris from his 2002 book on character. Cassam argues in his book that the adoption of epistemic vices and the development of epistemic virtues are important factors for humanity and that they can shape how people behave. Cassam’s argument runs against the quote from Doris.
To present his argument, Cassam lays out arguments from situationists writing, “one would think that curiosity, creativity, and flexibility are intellectual virtues, yet studies suggest that people are more likely to reason creatively, flexibly, and curiously when their moods have been elevated by such seemingly trivial and epistemically irrelevant situational influences as candy, success at anagrams, and comedy films.The argument is that our minds are flexible and adaptable depending on the situation. We might be disciplined, open-minded, and patient when we are sitting in front of our computer at 9 a.m. for work, but when we are in a hurry and someone spills something in front of us at the grocery store, those traits no longer matter. If something as simple as a plant in our office, the smell of cleaning solutions, and the number of a building can change our mood, how well we tidy up, and whether judges assess large or small fines on a business, then we are not really in control as much as we think. Situations control us more than we recognize.
Cassam takes the argument to its conclusion by writing, “Situationists conclude that people don’t have robust character traits like compassion and courage, and that how they behave is often better explained by other factors.” But for Cassam, this conclusion is overreaching. People really do behave differently based on individual character traits. Epistemic vices and their study demonstrate that people who are more open-minded make consistently better decisions than people who are closed-minded. Similarly, people who are gullible, arrogant, and prejudiced will systematically behave in ways that are more detrimental to themselves and society than people who do not display those character traits. Situationists, Cassam argues, give to much weight to the environment and not enough weight to individuals, agency, and the power of the human mind to be considerate and self-reflective.
Personally, I find myself to lean more toward the situationists than toward Cassam. I agree that laboratory studies involving confederates and environmental studies demonstrating that trivial factors which influence behavior are limited. They don’t truly capture reality, just a brief and normally unusual snapshot of our lives. However, I think in our general daily thinking we error too far in assuming that individuals truly control their lives. It is a useful fiction, but I think we would do well to recognize the power of our environments and be more considerate in shaping the structures, institutions, and situations which guide our lives. We can learn lessons from the impacts of seemingly trivial factors that influence our behaviors. We can see that we have the capacity to change dramatic traits about ourselves from situation to situation and better structure how we interact with the world around us to produce more virtuous behaviors. Assuming that humans are consistent and that virtues or vices are more a matter of control than a matter of situational context ignores the reality that we live within institutions that shape how our minds work.