The best 400 words you can possibly read on how ISIS gets people to fight

One of the nicest discussions I’ve see:

Explanations for ISIS’s behavior, and for political violence more generally, usually fall into two camps. The rationalist camp argues that violence is used for strategic purposes. People participate – and leaders use violence – when the benefits to violence exceed the costs. The rationalists also assume that leaders are cold, calculating strategists who seek to increase or maintain their power. Conversely, the psychological camp argues that political violence is better explained by emotional grievances, in defense of sacred values, or out of ethnic or religious hatred.

The divide between rational or psychological explanations for political violence is a false one. Insurgents and groups in political violence use money, promised protection, and other “rationalincentives to get people to participate. Opportunity also plays a large role. Economic shocks and poverty are good predictors of the onset of political violence and who ends up participating. Tactically, groups such as ISIS may seek to spoil any kind of rapprochement between more moderate groups and intentionally foment a backlash.

Rational incentives and motives are important, but so are psychological motives. Emotions are powerful tools. Fear and anger have the ability to rally individuals to a cause despite the risk. Brutal tactics can engender fear and be used to intimidate rival groups or challengers. Sacred values have the capacity to motivate people to make large sacrifices on behalf of their group. They also may make people less willing to be “bought off.” Being exposed to violence, or actually perpetrating it, strengthens group cohesion. It also lowers restraint against subsequent violence.

The failure to comprehend the complementary role of rational and psychological motivations results in an incomplete model of political violence. Political entrepreneurs use emotions strategically to both recruit insurgents and to polarize society for their benefit. Providing a salient cause to rally around, in tandem with benefits for participation, can motivate people to fight. Ideology and group identity is one solution to the difficult problem of maintaining cohesion and preventing defection that can hobble insurgent groups. Elaborate and time-consuming group rituals, hardline religious practices, and high financial costs of joining can further screen out the less committed. Groups and leaders may use certain brutal tactics or cultivate a reputation of brutality as a psychological weapon against rivals and those who would challenge them. But they may also use it as a way to further ensure internal group cohesion.

That is Thomas Zeitzoff writing at Political Violence @ a Glance.

The broader intellectual debate—why do men fight, riot, and rebel?—is a good chunk of my undergraduate course. I would have cited a different literature than Thomas, but that’s probably because I haven’t read half the things he points to. But I will.

Why commit violence is still a question with incomplete answers and relatively bad theoretical underpinnings, with no unifying framework. I think that will change a great deal in the next 10 years. Most of those advances won’t be from field experiments, but selfishly  I’d like to think there are some good examples.

57 thoughts on “The best 400 words you can possibly read on how ISIS gets people to fight

  1. This is an example of a good academic debate that has totally evaded the attention of policymakers. In the DC counterterrorism community, the talk is mostly about Daesh’s ideology, brainwashing, messaging, and “contagion” effects. No arguments about rationality or emotions other than quasi- or actually Islamophobic ones. We’d do well to see more of this injected into the policy discussion.