Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

How to Convert Terrorists

November 16, 2017

This post is based in part on a Feature Article in the19 August 2017 issue of the New Scientist titled, “Anatomy of terror: What makes normal people extremists?” by Peter Byrne. Anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts asks the question, “What makes someone prepared to die for an idea? He suggests that the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values.” He writes that sacred values are values that cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain. They tend to be associated with strong emotions and are often religious in nature, but beliefs held by nationalists and secularists may earn the label too.

Atran argues that individuals in this state are best understood, not as rational actors but as “devoted actors.” “Once they’re locked in as a devoted actor, none of the classic interventions seem to work. However, there can be openings. Although a sacred value cannot be abandoned it can be reinterpreted. Atran relates the case of an imam he interviewed who had worked for ISIS as a recruiter, but had left because he disagreed with their definition of jihad. For him, but not for them, jihadism could accommodate persuasion by non-violent means. As long as alternative interpretations are seen as coming from inside the group, they can be persuasive within it. Atran is now advising the US, UK, and French governments on the dynamics of jihadist networks to help them deal with terrorism.

Atran says that the key to combating extremism lies in addressing its social roots, and intervening early before anyone becomes a “devoted actor.” Until then there are all sorts of things that can be done. He says that one of the most effective countermeasures is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behavior among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.

Perspectives need to be changed. Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany thinks brain training could achieve similar effects. Neuroscientists have identified two pathways in the brain by which we relate to others. One mobilizes empathy and compassion, allowing us to share another person’s emotions. The second activates theory of mind, enabling us to see a situation from the other’s perspective. Her group recently completed a project called ReSource in which 300 volunteers spent nine months doing training first on mindfulness, and then on compassion and perspective training, and corresponding structural brain change were detectable in MRI scans.

Tania Singer notes that compassion evolved as part of an ancient nurturing instinct that is usually reserved for kin. To extend it to strangers, who may see the world differently from us, we need to add theory of mind. The full results from ReSource aren’t yet published, but Singer expects to see brain changes associated with perspective-taking training. She says that “only if you have both pathways working together in a coordinated fashion can you really move towards global cooperation.” By incorporating that training into school curricula, she suggests, we could build a more cohesive, cooperative society that is more resilient to extremism. To all of this, healthy memory say “Amen.’

Previous healthy memory posts have argued that had the prisoners held at Guantanomo been treated differently, an understanding could have been developed that would provide the basis for a new and more compelling narrative for these supposed terrorists. Once they had been converted, mindfulness training such as that in the ReSource program might have been highly effective.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Web of Lies

May 1, 2016

“Web of lies:  Is the Internet making a world without truth” is an article by Chris Baranluk in the Feb 20-26, 2016 edition of the New Scientist.  The World Economic Forum ranks massive digital misinformation as a geopolitical risk alongside terrorism.  This problem is especially pernicious as misinformation is very difficult to correct (enter “misinformation” into the healthy memory search block to see relevant posts).  Bruce Schneider, a director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that we’re entering an era of unprecedented psychological manipulation.

Walter Quattrociocchi at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, along with his colleagues looked at how different types of information are spread on Facebook by different communities.  They analyzed two groups:  those who shared conspiracy theories and those who shared science news articles.  They found that science stories received an initial spike of interest and were shared or “liked” frequently.  Conspiracy theories started with a low level of interest, but sometimes grew to be even more important than the science stories overall.  Both groups tended to ignore information that challenged they views.  Confirmation bias leads to an echo chamber.  Information that does not fit with an individual’s world view does not get passed on.  On social networks, people true their peers and use them as their primary information sources.   Quattrociocchi  says “The role of the expert is going to disappear.”

DARPA, a research agency for the U.S. Military,  is funding a Social Media in Strategic Communication Program, which funds dozens of studies looking at everything from subtle linguistic cues in specific posts to how information flows across large networks.
DARPA has also sponsored a challenge to design bots that can sniff out misinformation deliberately planted on Twitter.

Ultimately the aim of this research is to find ways to identify misinformation and effectively counter it, reducing the ability of groups like ISIS to manipulate events.  Jonathan Russell, head of policy at counter-terrorism think tank Quilliam in London says, “They have managed to digitize propaganda in a way that is completely understanding of social media and how it’s used.  Russell says that a lack of other voices also gives the impression that they are winning.  There’s no other  effective media coming out of Iraq and Syria.  Think tank Quilliam has attempted to counter such narratives with videos like “Not Another Brother,” which depicts a jihadist recruit in desperate circumstances.  It aims to show how easily people can be seduced by exposure to a narrow view of the world.

This research is key.  Information warfare will play an increasingly larger percentage of warfare than kinetic effects.

Pangiotis Metasxes of Wellsley College believes that we have entered a new ea in which the definition of literacy needs to be updated.  “In the past to be literate you needed to know reading and writing.  Today, these two are not enough.  Information reaches us from a vast number of sources.  We need to learn what to read, as well as how.”

Cognitive Misers and Democracy

February 17, 2016

Cognitive misers are people who do not like to exert the effort involved in thinking.   In addition to entering “cognitive misers” into the healtymemory search block, you can also enter “System 1” or “Kahneman.”  Cognitive misers like to believe in things because questioning beliefs or principles or learning new things involves cognitive effort and thinking.

A short while back I read a poll that I found extremely discouraging.  The question asked what was more important to voters, a politician’s willingness to compromise or to  principles.
Here is a breakdown of the responses by political party.  Note that they do not add up to 100% as some respondents refused to answer.

Group                   Principles        Willing to Compromise
All Voters             40%                  50%
Republicans        54%                   36%
Independents     40%                  47%
Democrats           23%                  68%

I guess that the good news is that with the exception of one group, the remaining groups a larger percentage indicated a Willingness to Compromise.  In only one group did this percentage reach 50% and only one other group indicated a slightly greater than a two to one preference.  If the results are representative, then I argue that these beliefs present a far greater existential threat to the Democracy in the United States than does ISIS.

Before addressing cognitive miserliness per se, let me remind readers what a democracy is supposed to be..  A democracy is a system in which people vote for candidates and the candidates try to vote for what they think are the correct policies, but negotiate when the need to get the most palatable policy that they can accept.  There will be times when the vote goes against them, but they accept the result.  They do not threaten to shut down the government or actually shut down the government.  As you know this has already happened at least twice.

It is unfortunate that “politician” has negative connotations.  Using “politician” in a pejorative sense, “he’s a politician,” or he is doing this for “political reasons” is both unfair and wrong.  The first requirement of a politician is to make the political system work.  Sometimes that might correspond to political beliefs, sometimes it will not.  But beliefs or principals should not be the driving factor.

The advancement of mankind has been in direct proportion to the advancement of science.  Key to science is thinking.  Cognitive miserliness is anathema to effective science.  Whatever beliefs science has are beliefs that are subject to change.  It that is not the case, then the enterprise is not science.  There have been enormous changes in science during my lifetime.  There is not a single subject matter that has not changed.  Until fairly recently science believed that humans could not generate new neurons.  In other words there was no such think as neurogenesis.  Had I argued to the contrary as a graduate student I would have quickly been booted out of graduate school.  It was not until close to the end of the 20th century that neurogenesis was accepted and the notion of neuroplasticity  was advanced.

I become particularly annoyed when I hear reporters accuse politicians of flip flopping.  It seems like this is the stock in trade for many reporters.  This reminds me of the response the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes gave when he was accused of a statement that was in conflict with previous comments.  He responded,”when the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir.”  An argument can be made that opinions are not being changed by facts, but by political considerations.  Here I would refer you to the remedial exposition on democracy I offered above.

I also argue that cognitive miserliness is a problem for the Supreme Court of the United States.  There are two views of the Constitution.  One is that it is supposed to be a dynamic document that has been written that is expected to change with the times.  The other, originalism, is that the Constitution needs to be interpreted in terms of what the authors intended.  We need to remember that when the Constitution was written, slavery existed, black people were counted as three-fifths of a human being, and women could not vote.  It should also be remembered that one of the most advanced scientists of the time, Benjamin Franklin, did not know what current high school physics students know.  Moreover, I am virtually certain that if the framers of the constitution knew what we do today, they would have written a different constitution.  I am upset when the Supreme Court Justice who recently passed away is described as having a brilliant mind.  He was an originalist.  He believed that what the framers of the constitution believed at that time should provide the basis of judicial decisions.  I regard such individuals as intellectual runts.

The results of cognitive miserliness are readily apparent in the United States.  Realize that the United States is the only advanced country that does not have a system of national health insurance.  What we do have is the country with the most expensive medical costs with results comparable to third world countries.  We are the only advanced country that has no control over the cost of prescription medications.  And we are the only country that has a major political party that refuses to believe in global warming.  We also have a major TV network that insists on always having a denier of global warming on a show where a scientist is presenting data bearing on global warming and its ramifications.  This is in spite of the fact that this is a small minority of scientists, some of whom are paid scientific guns to counter the overwhelming evidence.

The reason that is often presented is one of American Exceptionalism.  This exceptionalism is a product of cognitive miserliness.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Syndrome E

November 27, 2015

In the recent healthymemory blog post, “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism,” Syndrome E (E stands for evil) was briefly discussed.  Syndrome E was developed to describe the atrocities, mass-killings, genocides such as the holocaust and the killings by ISIS.  The neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried describes these atrocities as examples of Syndrome E.   He defined the following seven symptoms of Syndrome E:

Compulsive repetitive violence
Obsessive beliefs
Rapid desensitisation to violence
Flat emotional state
Separation of violence from everyday activities
Obedience to an authority
Perceiving group members as virtuous

Having decided that neuroscience has come a long way since his original paper in 1997 (Syndrome E in The Lancet, Volume 150, No. 9094, p1845-1847) Fried  organized a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept.  Highlights of this conference were published in the New Scientist, November 14-20, 2015 in a feature by Laura Spinney.

Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have an aversion to harming others.  If this is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E.  So how might this occur.

The lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are sensitive to rules from the newer parts of the brain.  The medial region of the PFC receives information from the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that processes emotional states and is sensitive to our innate to preferences.  An experiment using brain scanning was designed to put these two parts of the brain in conflict.  Both these parts of the PFC were observed to light up.  People followed the rule but still considered their personal preference showing that activity in the lateral PFC overrode the personal preference.  The idea here is in the normal brain the higher brain overrides signals coming from the primitive brain.  However, in the pathological brain with Syndrome E, the primitive brain prevails.

Fried suggests that people experience a visceral reaction when they kill for the first time, but some become rapidly desensitized.  And the primary instinct not to harm may become more easily overcome when people are “just following orders.”  Unpublished research using brain scans has shown that coercion makes us feel less responsible for our actions.  Although coercion can cause people to take extraordinarily actions (see the healthy memory blog post “Good vs. Evil”), there are individuals who are predisposed to violence who are just awaiting an opportunity.

Unfortunately, the question remains as to how to prevent people from joining such radicalized groups.  Research in this area is just beginning and much more needs to be done (See the healthy memory blog post,”Why DARPA is studying stories”). Being a neuroscientist, it is not surprising that Fried thinks  that we should use our growing neuroscientific knowledge to identify radicalization early, isolate those affected and help them change.  We wish him, and hopefully many others in this effort.

What is not mentioned in this article is that it can be advantageous for one group to adopt Syndrome E to take from or to take advantage of another group.  Consider North America.  Syndrome E was involved in vacating Native American lands for Europeans.  Moreover, up until the Civil War, blacks were enslaved and slavery was a key component of the economy of the United States.  I sometimes ponder how would North America been settled by Europeans had we the moral and ethical standards of today.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.