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Story by Rhitu Chatterjee, PRI's "The World"

We all tend think of ourselves as conscious, rational beings, but human behavior is largely driven by unconscious attitudes. Science journalist Shankar Vedantam shines a light in these dark corners of the mind in his new book, "The Hidden Brain, How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Precedents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Lives."

In the book, Vedantam dedicates a chapter to the psychology of terrorists and suicide bombers. He says psychologically, suicide bombers aren't that different from you and me. His findings are based on research conducted among suicide bombers who have failed to complete their missions and are currently in prisons around the world.

"These psychological evaluations show that, if anything, suicide bombers tend to have better mental health than the rest of us," said Vedantam. "They tend to be more idealistic than the rest of us. They're often not the crazed, religious nuts as we usually think. They're also not necessarily people who themselves have suffered great acts of humiliation and are acting out these narratives of revenge."

Rather than individual motivations, it's group psychology that prompts terrorists to commit extreme acts. Human beings are hard-wired to be strongly influenced by the people around them. Whether it's a group of investment bankers in the game of making money, or missionaries preparing to save the world, Vendantam says small groups of people develop their own norms and aspirations that are different from people outside the group.

For terrorist groups, the norms are created by their leaders, and psychologically, the training process is like being in a tunnel where thoughts, ideas and beliefs, are severely constrained.

When you have small groups of people who are living in a very constrained world and are intensely loyal to each other, says Vendantam, the stage is set for manipulators to change the norms of human behavior.

"These leaders are very skilled at upturning the norms of human behavior. So within the tunnel that is the suicide bomber's tunnel, becoming a suicide terrorist is not aberrational; it becomes aspirational."

When being a suicide bomber becomes aspirational, he adds, it's not difficult to recruit  people who are willing to commit acts that would be considered extreme to the outside world.

"You feel privileged to be a suicide bomber," Vendantam explains. "So within the world of, for example, Islamic suicide terrorists today, becoming a suicide terrorist is not to be someone who is looked down upon as the dregs of society; it’s to become the rock star."

Share your thoughts on this subject with Shankar Vedantam and hear more of his interview at "The World" Science Forum.


PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."

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