27/05/2017 4:54 AM AEST | Updated 27/05/2017 5:15 AM AEST

Research About Social Norms Could Help Us Better Understand Extremism

A new study on human cooperation could shed light on why some take radical steps.

NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images
A British army soldier and police officer are stationed in London as Britain raises its terror alert following the attack in Manchester. 

New research investigating how we adhere to certain unspoken codes of conduct and appearance may give us insight into extremist behavior. And with this weeks’s deadly terrorist bombings in Manchester, England that targeted an Ariana Grande concert, many people are debating what motivates individuals to take extreme steps like suicide bombing.  

Answering the question of how humans evolved to cooperate with groups and internalize social norms even when doing so can be detrimental to their safety and wellbeing was the goal of a study published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Researchers from the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and University of California, Davis say that in today’s society suicide bombings and other self-sacrificial acts could be viewed as an example of “oversocialized” individuals. Individuals like this are willing to make extreme sacrifices that place the interests of a specific group and its values above all else. For those extreme individuals, acting in the interest of that group trumps individual interests. 

“You can think of people willing to go to the extreme to defend or promulgate what they believe is right,” Sergey Gavrilets, lead author of a the study and a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville told HuffPost.

The researchers used computer simulated models to analyze genetic factors that might influence whether or not individuals followed social norms. After running many simulations, built on previous research, the study authors found a high degree of variation among people’s ability to internalize norms.

Through the model, a relatively small percentage of people emerged as “oversocialized,” following the social norms of their self-identified group at any cost. 

Beyond terrorists and martyrs, oversocialized individuals could also be individuals who organize group cooperation, such as tribal leaders in small-scale societies.

“Depending on the situations they can be viewed as heroes, saints, or the worst villains,” Gavrilets said.

A different study Gavrilets worked on, published in the journal Nature in March, found that negative or harmful shared group experiences can bond people together and could groom them for extreme self-sacrifice. An example of this could be soldiers preparing for war.

You can think of people willing to go to the extreme to defend or promulgate what they believe is right.Sergey Gavrilets, lead study author

On the other end of the spectrum are what’s known as “undersocialized” individuals, who are “totally immune to social norms and only care about their own material benefits,” Gavrilets explained. “Some psychopaths can be an example.”

Of course, most people are neither over- nor under-socialized, and instead follow social norms of their society to an intermediate degree.

The study also examined “free riders,” or individuals who don’t participate in collective group actions, even though those actions might benefit the individual. (A teammate who doesn’t give his full effort in a game of tug war would be an example of a free rider.)  

Interestingly, the researchers found that peer punishment, such as shaming, shunning or spreading rumors about free riders, was the most effective mechanism for getting them to cooperate with the group. Less punitive measures of encouraging group norms, such as promoting participation in group effort, were less effective at getting individuals to comply. 

As for if the new findings could be applied to counter-terrorism efforts, Gavrilets noted that their model would need to be rigorously tested before it could be practically applied to policy. 

“What we’ve done is a step in that direction,” he said.

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