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Neuroscience Explains Why ISIS Attracts Psychopaths and Why Psychopathic Cops Kill Blacks

Screen capture from ISIS recruitment video.
Screen capture from ISIS recruitment video.

Neuroscience Explains Why ISIS Attracts Psychopaths

The militant Islamist group known as ISIS is more than just an organization with an ideology that is different from our own. This is a group that has regularly carried out or inspired attacks that have massacred large numbers of innocent civilians in places like France, Turkey, Mali, and now, the United States. Additionally, ISIS has released a number of videos that clearly show members beheading people in the most gruesome and barbaric manner thinkable. As such, it has become increasingly apparent that we are dealing with a group of homicidal and suicidal maniacs with a severely warped moral and ethical code. One essentially has to be a murderous psychopath to willingly commit such acts, as a psychopath is generally defined as an unstable or aggressive person with abnormal or violent social behavior.

Since counter-terrorism strategies rely heavily on understanding what makes these individuals tick, and how the process of radicalization works, it is crucial that we understand the minds and brains of the perpetrators, as well as those they aim to recruit. One main question of interest should be, “Does ISIS turn people into psychopaths, or do psychopaths join ISIS?” Fortunately, studies from the fields of neuroscience and psychology offer some very illuminating insights into the subject.

Our brains are essentially biological computers. Brain cells, called neurons, communicate by sending electrical signals to one another, and whole brain regions are responsible for carrying out different functions. One area of the brain that is specifically involved in good decision making, impulse control, and regulating one’s emotions is known as the prefrontal cortex, and is located at the front of the brain, just behind one’s forehead. Little kids have brains that haven’t fully developed, and therefore have a prefrontal cortex with electrical circuitry that lacks proper ‘wiring’. This is why children have emotional outbursts, are impulsive, and often make unwise decisions.

According to a number of peer-reviewed studies, psychopaths have a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex as well. As such, they too have difficulty controlling impulses, regulating emotions, and making logical decisions. Furthermore, a specific area of this brain region, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, has been shown to mediate a number of important social and emotional decision-making functions. Since activity in this area is disrupted in psychopaths, they are prone to impulsive, aggressive, socially destructive behavior.

This certainly explains a great deal about why psychopaths make good members of ISIS, but what is it about ISIS that actually lures them in? In other words, what is it about psychopaths’ brains that make them vulnerable to ISIS recruiters compared to normal individuals, other than the fact that it provides a way for them to exercise their violent, sadistic urges?

Science has an answer that makes a lot of sense: Prefrontal cortex dysfunction also produces an impaired ability to doubt things, or a “doubt deficit”. This hinders one’s ability to be skeptical of new information, especially beliefs or ideas that are being imposed on them. Just as children—with their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex—easily believe in supernatural beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, psychopaths are highly vulnerable to brainwashing and radicalization by those pushing violent, virulent ideologies.

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Walter Scott after he was executed with a barrage of bullets to his back. The cop lied and said he was under attack.
Walter Scott after he was executed with a barrage of bullets to his back. The cop lied and said he was under attack.

The Neuroscience Behind Why White Cops Kill Black Men

Studies from neuroscience and psychology may shed some light on why white police officers that aren’t consciously racist are quick to pull the trigger on black men. 

If you’ve paid any attention at all to the news during the past year, or simply are on social media, then chances are you’ve seen real life videos of white cops shooting and killing black males when the situation did not warrant it. The most recent video to have surfaced captured the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, for which he has been charged with first-degree murder. Earlier this year, a similar video was released of a white South Carolina cop shooting a 50-year-old unarmed black man in the back as he was running away. Although in these cases it was clear that the officers were not presented with any lethal threat while they fired their weapons multiple times, there are also countless cases where police officers have discharged their firearms when the level of threat was more ambiguous.

A classic example of this occurred in 2014 when another South Carolina policeman shot an unarmed African American who he had stopped in a parking lot for a seatbelt violation. The cop asked for an ID from the young man, who subsequently reached under the seat for his wallet, but was shot in the leg before he could even take it out. Upon inspection of the body-cam video, it becomes evident that the jumpy, trigger-happy cop probably did fear for his life. At the same time, it is also clear that he shouldn’t have, as the behavior of the driver involved nothing out of the ordinary. One could reasonably argue, and many did, that if the driver had been white, the cop wouldn’t have reacted the way he did.

Does this mean that the officer was a racist, and that he fired his gun purely out of hate? Without actually being inside the cop’s mind, there is no way to know for sure, but we can know for certain that many similar situations have transpired where white officers acted on gut instinct, and not out of animosity towards African Americans.

What needs to be understood by the prosecutors of such cases, and by the public at large, is the distinction between explicit and implicit racism. Where explicit racism is intentional and conscious, implicit racism involves a subconscious bias that causes one to treat members of other races unequally. Implicit racism likely plays a significant role in many of the cases involving white cops shooting black males, and it is also likely that these cops genuinely believe they hold no prejudice at all. In other words, white police officers may perceive black males to be a threat for behaving in ways that wouldn’t seem suspicious for white males. In fact, an overwhelming number of studies from the fields of neuroscience and psychology provide evidence to support this notion.

For example, studies have shown that while some white individuals answer survey questions with responses that reflect positive attitudes toward blacks, their behavioral responses on certain psychological tests reveal a different story. In one particular type of classic experiment, white participants are asked to quickly categorize words that pop up on a computer screen as either positive (like “happy”) or negative (like “fear”). However, just before each word is displayed, either a black or a white face quickly appears on the screen. What scientists have found time and time again, is that on average, white individuals categorize negative words much faster when they follow black faces, and positive words faster when they follow white faces. What these studies show is that many of us, despite what we believe about ourselves, have split-second negative reactions towards members of certain other races. And unfortunately, these subconscious racist tendencies may affect behavior in the real world, especially when police officers need to make blink-of-an-eye decisions about how to respond to a perceived threat.

Another type of experiment has provided further evidence that white individuals tend to subconsciously perceive black males as threatening. All individuals, regardless of race, show something that scientists call an “attention bias” for threat. For example, hundreds of studies have shown that humans tend to move their attention more quickly towards threatening aspects of the environment. In something called a “visual search task,” participants are instructed to locate one specific object in a clutter of objects on a computer screen while their eye movements are tracked. The data has shown that people are able to locate threatening objects, like spiders, or angry faces, much faster than they can find non-threatening ones, like ladybugs or happy faces. This makes sense in terms of evolution. Being able to rapidly locate threats in the environment allowed our ancestors to survive in an unpredictable and dangerous natural world. Interestingly, scientists have also found that white individuals have a similar attention bias for black faces, even when those faces have non-threatening expressions. Specifically, white participants tend to orient their attention towards black faces more quickly than same-race faces. These findings clearly show that on average, whites tend to subconsciously perceive blacks as threats, no matter how opposed to stereotypes or racial discrimination they may be.

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