Hug a Terrorist

August 19, 2008

Economics is fundamentally about human behavior, not money. Conducting an economic analysis of a person’s behavior means assuming that he or she is rational, then looking at the incentives that drive his or her behavior.

Economist Larry Iannaccone specializes in applying this framework to the decision to associate oneself with a religion, with particular emphasis on fringe religions (i.e. religious cults). As Iannaccone explains in this podcast, the seemingly weird decision to join a cult has a rational basis, to the extent that cult membership fulfills a person’s desire to be part of a community. In his view, the more abnormal the practices of the cult, the better, since the cult member’s adherence to abnormal practices confirms their dedication and loyalty to the cult and its members.

Specifically, he mentions the Hare Krishnas, whose members shave their heads, wear special robes, and refrain from eating meat. Since such practices are rare among the general public, these are all powerful signals that a person who joins the group intends to stay there. If the Krishnas were to require their members to adhere to more common or less visible practices, the value of adherence as a signal would be decreased. When it comes to cult signalling, the more observable and strange the behavior, the better.

In an interesting article, Max Abrahms applies the same idea to terrorism. Membership in a terrorist organization, Abrahms argues, is not primarily driven by political idealism, but rather by a desire for social acceptance. Abrahms points out that most terrorist organization members are drawn from a population already at the fringes of society, who thus have the most to gain by joining a tight-knit community, even one dedicated to terrorism. Terrorist acts, moreover, tend to signal a person’s commitment by separating them from the rest of society, increasing their in-group solidarity.

Check out the podcast and article.

(HT: Jim Harper on the Cato@Liberty blog for the Abrahms article)

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