Battle Tested

By Berreby, David | Psychology Today, July/August 2015 | Go to article overview

Battle Tested


Berreby, David, Psychology Today


IN A SPARSELY APPOINTED trailer in northern Iraq, close to the sandbagged front line where Kurds faced the advancing forces of the Islamic State, fighters sat on the floor last spring and talked to Lydia Wilson about war. "Here," one would say, pointing to his neck, "is where I was wounded-and here, and here." Another trailed off from his own story to tell her about the wars in which his father and grandfather had fought indefense oftheir ethnic identity. Others praised their French allies' efficiency in carrying out air strikes- the Americans, they said, took too long to arrive and flew away too soon. Some wondered out loud whether the coming night would bring suicide attackers driving trucks laden with explosives toward their position. Daytime offered quiet and some respite in the trailer, but by nightfall, they knew, ISIS would be back.

Wilson, an ebullient English research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford, sat beside the men asking questions, listening intently, and scribbling in her notebook. At certain points she focused her attention on two men in particular. They had been led into the trailer in handcuffs and with their eyes down and at first had little to say. These men, the Kurds told her, had been working undercover for ISIS, planting car bombs and plotting assassinations. They had already been tried in Mosul and would soon be executed. For Wilson, the opportunity to talk with them could offer valuable information for her study ofwhat motivates young men to kill or die in war.

These conversations were a notable departure from what she had intended to do when she moved to the Middle East 10 years earlier. Wilson had arrived in Damascus planning to learn Arabic as part of her doctoral research in medieval Arabic philosophy, but quickly discovered that when living there, "you can't help but get absorbed in the politics." At a conference, she happened to meet anthropologist Scott Atran, who for 20 years has studied people who participate in violent action on behalf of a group or a cause. When Atran offered Wilson an opportunity to collaborate with him, she jumped at the chance.

Since then, she has worked in several conflict zones in the region, and among the things she has learned is to adapt her research technique to local mores. For instance, while psychologists often ask subjects to rate their feelings on a scale of 1 to 10, such blunt quantification is "an unheard of way of answering a question" in the Middle East. "They look at you and say, 'Let me tell you a story.' So we do not ask with scales anymore. We'll use images of fighters or we'll ask them a question, and when they say yes or no, we'll say, 'Yes very, very much? Or yes only a bit?' Or, 'Are you not quite sure-right in the middle?'"

With the captured ISIS fighters, she plunged into her experiment, with its seemingly odd questions and images on flash cards. From their fellow believers, the men were used to hearing that establishing the Islamic State's caliphate was God's work. From their enemies, they were used to hearing the opposite-that ISIS was bad. Wilson managed to engage them by showing that she was not expecting either of these rote answers. "We're not coming in and saying, 'What's it like to live under ISIS?' or any of the questions they're very used to. We're asking something that makes them say 'What?' It gets them out of whatever prepared answers they had." Measuring their true feelings about the relative strength of different groups in the region was the first step in the experiment. After that, other tests would measure the extent to which the fighters identified with groups and their values. Despite the alien nature of Wilson's line of inquiry, she found that it seized the men's attention and they freely offered answers.

For millennia, philosophers and poets, historians and political economists have offered explanations for why men fight, with theories primarily based on rhetoric, ideology, or emotion. …

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