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The Role of the Devoted Actor in War, Revolution, and Terrorism


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

“The Devoted Actor” is a theoretical framework developed by a group of scholars and policymakers at ARTIS International – a nonprofit group that uses social science research to help resolve seemingly intractable political and cultural conflicts – to better understand the social and psychological mechanisms underlying people’s willingness to make costly sacrifices for a group and a cause. Our research indicates that when people act as “Devoted Actors,” they are deontic (i.e., duty-based) agents who mobilize for collective action to protect cherished values in ways that are dissociated from likely risks or rewards. Devoted actors represent a dimension of thought and behavior distinct from instrumental rationality in resisting material compromises over such values.

There is an evolutionary rationale to willingness to make costly sacrifices for the group, even fighting to the death and against all odds. Especially when a perceived outside threat to one’s primary reference group is very high, and survival prospects very low, then only if sufficiently many members of a group are endowed with such a willingness to extreme sacrifice can the group hope to parry stronger but less devoted enemies who are less committed to disregarding the costs of action. From an evolutionary perspective, collective actions such as hunting and fighting are vulnerable to defectors, hence difficult to initiate. But if some highly motivated individuals are willing to initiate activity, this may reduce the costs for others to join; and such an “advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men … always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes.”

The Devoted Actor Framework integrates two hitherto independent research programs in cognitive theory, “sacred values” and “identity fusion,” while drawing on key insights from sociologicaland anthropological analyses of religion and community. Sacred values (SVs) are nonnegotiable preferences whose defense compels actions beyond evident reason; that is, regardless of calculable costs and consequences. Identity fusion occurs when personal and group identities collapse into a unique identity to generate a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny. These two programs account for different aspects of intractable intergroup conflicts; however, here I argue that SVs and identity fusion interact to produce willingness to make costly sacrifices for a primary reference group, even unto death, and the sacrifice of the totality of self-interests.

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