Since the Second World War, motivations for groups opposed to the state and fighting against astonishing odds have often been thought to coalesce around material reasons. But a new study looking into why people are willing to sacrifice their family, friends, and even their own lives for a particular cause has found that the underlying motivation is very different from these dated notions of comradeship.
The research, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that in many cases the motivations focused around immovable and unshakable beliefs in "sacred" values, whether secular or religious, showing that the actions taken by these people in extreme conflicts are not driven by cost-benefit calculations of the individuals.
By understanding these reasons, which were once described by the US’s national intelligence director as “imponderable”, it is hoped that the fight against extremism could be more targeted and effective, and policy decisions can be better informed as a result.
The researchers carried out that work by actually traveling to the front line of the war in Iraq in 2015. By doing this, they had access not only to captured ISIS fighters, but also Arab Sunni combatants, Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Peshmerga, as well as Iraqi soldiers from the government army.
This was a crucial part of the research, as rather than talking to people about what they claim they will do, as is more usually done, the researchers were able to question those who had already made those decisions and undertaken those sacrifices. From this, the team was able to determine that there were three main factors that led to the decisions of these fighters to makes these costly sacrifices.
This starts with a commitment to these non-negotiable sacred values and associated group, the enthusiasm to place these values above their friends and family, and finally the perceived “spiritual strength” of the group for which they are fighting, which is the strength of their convictions, over that of their enemy’s.
These results were then compared to those of 6,000 Spanish civilians quizzed online. This showed a stark difference, in which the majority of people placed their family and friends above the beliefs they found sacred. Fascinatingly, they also found that those civilians who did rate their values above their family were also more willing to make costly sacrifices.
“These findings indicate the importance of apparently non-material concerns in motivating and sustaining violent conflict,” wrote the authors. This is interesting, as it runs counter to the established wisdom that the “fighting spirit” (even against unsurmountable odds) is due to comrades or a combat group.