Neuroimaging 'will to fight' for sacred values: An empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate

Nafees Hamid, Clara Pretus, Scott Atran, Molly J. Crockett, Jeremy Ginges, Hammad Sheikh, Adolf Tobeña, Susanna Carmona, Angel Gómez, Richard Davis, Oscar Vilarroya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Violent intergroup conflicts are often motivated by commitments to abstract ideals such as god or nation, so-called 'sacred' values that are insensitive to material trade-offs. 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 non-sacred 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number181585
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • FMRI
  • Neuroimaging
  • Radicalization
  • Sacred values
  • Violent extremism
  • Will to fight


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