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.” Hear him talk about what suicide bombers and investment bankers have in common, and share your thoughts and questions with him online. He’s our guest in The World Science Forum.
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MARCO WERMAN: Training is key; not only for the Afghan Army, but for the suicide bombers the Army has to contend with. Getting people to kill themselves for a cause takes a kind of psychological conditioning. And researchers have been studying how this works, how it is that suicide bombers are created. The World’s science correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here.
RHITU CHATTERJEE: Hi Marco.
WERMAN: Hi Rhitu.
CHATTERJEE: Yes, so for my broadcast I interviewed science journalist and author [phonetic] Shankar Vendantam. He has a new book and it’s called “The Hidden Brain, How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Precedents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Lives”. One of the chapters in this book is about the psychology of terrorists and suicide bombers. Vendantam told me that psychologically, suicide bombers aren’t that different from you and me.
SHANKAR VENDANTAM: There’s been a lot of interesting research conducted among suicide bombers who have failed to complete their missions and are now in prisons of various kinds around the world. These psychological evaluations show that if anything, suicide bombers tend to have better mental health than the rest of us; they tend to be more idealistic than the rest of us. They’re often not 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.
WERMAN: Suicide bombers are mentally healthier and more idealistic than the rest of us. So Rhitu, why would they then do something that most of us would deem extreme, irrational or unhealthy?
CHATTERJEE: It all has to do with group psychology Marco. You have to remember that human beings are hard-wired to be strongly influenced by the people around us. 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.
WERMAN: Right. But for suicide bombers the norms and aspirations are killing others and killing themselves.
CHATTERJEE: Right. And of course the leaders of the terrorist groups are the ones that are creating this norm and imposing it on the young men and women. Vendantam says that psychologically, the training process is like being in a tunnel.
VENDAMTAM: Within the tunnel that is the suicide bomber’s tunnel, becoming a suicide terrorist is not aberrational; it becomes aspirational. And when you turn the norm so that suicide terrorism is not aberrational but aspirational, you no longer have to go out to recruit people to come to you.
CHATTERJEE: So you feel privileged to be here.
VENDAMTAM: You feel privileged to be a suicide bomber, 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.
WERMAN: Wow. And that sounds like a dangerous status for anyone who is hell-bent on destruction. Fascinating stuff Rhitu, but we’ll have to leave it there. Listeners can hear the rest of your interview, though, with Shankar Vendantam on your science pod cast.
CHATTERJEE: That’s right Marco. I spoke with Vendantam about how unconscious psychological processes influence our decisions and behaviors in many ways.
WERMAN: To download The World’s science pod cast, go to the world dot org slash science.
CHATTERJEE: Yes. And listeners can chat directly with Vendantam online. He’s our guest through next week in The World Science Forum. You can find that as well at the world dot org slash science.
WERMAN: Great stuff, thank you Rhitu.
CHATTERJEE: My pleasure.
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