Study unpacks terrorist’s moral mindset

Carlos Ortega

Members of the Colombian Police stand guard after an attack with explosives against a branch of the Banco Agrario in Corinto, South east Colombia, 26 April 2010.

Study unpacks terrorist’s moral mindset


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Working with a group of incarcerated, an Argentinian cognitive psychology team is trying to understand the moral judgment of terrorists.

The study published by the Nature Human Behaviour Magazine draws its subjects from 66 far-right paramilitary terrorists incarcerated in Colombia. All of them have been convicted of murder and have taken part in massacres. The combatants revealed a so-called “abnormal pattern of moral judgment,” which sets them apart from the general population.

Many had been involved in massacres with hundreds of victims.

The study process involved exposing the subjects to various scenarios in which someone can deliberately or accidentally cause harm to others. They are then asked to make a moral judgment as to how forbidden or not is a certain pattern of behaviour. Typically subjects will condemn premeditated harm more than accidental, examining first and foremost motives. Terrorists judge the moral value of the act based on its outcome.

The aim of the study was to help with the psychological profiling of terrorists, helping law enforcement agencies. However, the team also points out that there were likely to be differences in the “origins and psychological traits of different forms of terrorism,” because in Colombia the main motivating factor is not religion. But the method of signaling out a “terrorist mindset” is useful.

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