THEORY ON FOLLOWING THE LEADER

Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s findings showed that almost anyone couldbecome abusive. If you look closely at their results, though, most participants did not. So what distinguished those who did? The pioneering work of social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1980s, though unrelated, suggested part of the answer. They argued that a group’s behavior and the ultimate influence of its leaders depended critically on two interrelated factors: identification and disidentification. Specifically, for someone to follow a group—possibly to the point of violence—he or she must identify with its members and, at the same time, detach from people outside the group, ceasing to see them as his or her concern.

We confirmed these dynamics in our own work that has revisited Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s paradigms. Across a number of different studies, we have found consistently that, just as Tajfel and Turner proposed, participants are willing to act in oppressive ways only to the extent that they come to identify with the cause they are being asked to advance—and to disidentify with those they are harming. The more worthwhile they believe the cause to be, the more they justify their acts as regrettable but necessary.

This understanding—that social identity and not pressure to conform governs how far someone will go—resonates with findings about what actually motivates terrorists. In his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer, emphasized that terrorists are generally true believers who know exactly what they are doing. “The mujahedin were enthusiastic killers,” he noted, “not robots simply responding to social pressures or group dynamics.” Sageman did not dismiss the importance of compelling leaders—such as Osama bin Laden and ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—but he suggested that they serve more to provide inspiration than to direct operations, issue commands or pull strings.

Indeed, there is little evidence that masterminds orchestrate acts of terror, notwithstanding the language the media often use when reporting these events. Which brings us to a second recent shift in our thinking about group dynamics: we have observed that when people do come under the influence of authorities, malevolent or otherwise, they do not usually display slavish obedience but instead find unique, individual ways to further the group’s agenda. After the Stanford Prison Experiment had concluded, for example, one of the most zealous guards asked one of the prisoners whom he had abused what he would have done in his position. The prisoner replied: “I don’t believe I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t believe I would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing…. I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece.” Individual terrorists, too, tend to be both autonomous and creative, and the lack of a hierarchical command structure is part of what makes terrorism so hard to counter.

How do terror leaders attract such engaged, innovative followers if they are not giving direct orders? Other discoveries from the past few decades (summarized in our 2011 book, co-authored with Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership) highlight the role leaders play in building a sense of shared identity and purpose for a group, helping members to frame their experiences. They empower their followers by establishing a common cause and empower themselves by shaping it. Indeed, Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments are object lessons in how to create a shared identity and then use it to mobilize people toward destructive ends. Just as they convinced the participants in their studies to inflict harm in the name of scientific progress, so successful leaders need to sell the enterprise they envision for their group as honorable and noble.

Both al Qaeda and ISIS deploy this strategy. A large part of their appeal to sympathizers is that they promote terror for the sake of a better society—one that harks back to the peaceful community that surrounded the prophet Mohammed. Last year University of Arizona journalism professor Shahira Fahmy carried out a systematic analysis of ISIS’s propaganda and found that only about 5 percent depicts the kind of brutal violence typically seen on Western screens. The great majority features visions of an “idealistic caliphate,” which would unify all Muslims harmoniously. Moreover, a significant element of ISIS’s success—one that makes it more threatening than al Qaeda—lies in the very fact that its leaders lay claim to statehood. In the minds of its acolytes at least, it has the means to try to make this utopian caliphate a reality.

Crucially, however, the credibility and influence of leaders—especially those who promote conflict and violence—depend not only on what they say and do but also on their opponents’ behavior. Evidence for this fact emerged after a series of experiments by one of us (Haslam) and Ilka Gleibs of the London School of Economics that looked at how people choose leaders. One of the core findings was that people are more likely to support a bellicose leader if their group faces competition with another group that is behaving belligerently. Republican candidate Donald Trump might have been wise to ponder this before he suggested that all Muslim immigrants are potential enemies who should be barred from entering the U.S. Far from weakening the radicals, such statements provide the grit that gives their cause greater traction. Indeed, after Trump made his declaration, an al Qaeda affiliate reaired it as part of its propaganda offensive.

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