The Suicide-Bomber Type

For this week’s reaction paper I will quickly define what a suicide bomber is, provide a summary of how similar people is acknowledged in the literature, and provide an experiment to test this hypothesis. This reaction paper thus summarizes the experiment I plan to run at the conclusion of this class.


A Consequence of Genotypic Polymorphism?

I define “suicide bomber” as follows: “a suicide bomber is the kind of person who purposefully loses his life in order to punish injustice.” More broadly, we might saw that “a suicide bomber is the type of person who will accept a fall in his position to a state below which he had at the beginning of a bargaining game in order to punish a free-rider.” This definition has three critical portions. First, it assumes that humanity can be divided into kinds or types that act in a semi-predictable manner. Second, it assumes that there exists humans who act altruistically instead of maximizing their own utility. Third, it accepts that this effect is translated into altruistic punishment.


Evidence for types is found everywhere. In a broad sense, men enjoy some types of violence more than women (Kotalak, Singer), and single men are more likely than attached men to “act in ways considered personally more dangerous but socially more meaningful” (Atran 1537). Additionally, in laboratory experiments have shown stable “strategies” of cooperation (Kuzban and Descioli).

Concerns over fairness can override an individual’s ability to think rationally. Or, rather, such concerns evoke a “rationality in design” that operates instead of a self-centered “rationality in action” (Orbell et al 14). Guth and Tietz (446), for example, write that “considerations of distributive justice seriously destroy the prospects of exploiting strategic power.” Atran described real-world suicide bombing as benefiting “the organization rather than the individual” as “rational choice [in suicide bombing] is the [group's] prerogative, not the agent’s” (1537). Smith sums it up well when he writes In short, the other regarding, social aspect of decision making that drives the preference to appear fair should take precedence over any preference for individual gain” (1015). Further theoretical support for altruism is found Hammond and Axelrod (2006), who devised a mathematical model of ethnocentric altruism to because of “empirical evidence suggests that a predisposition to favor ingroups can be easily triggered by even arbitrary group distinctions” (2).

It also assumes that a concern for altruism (not being a first-order free-rider) implies a concern for punishment (not being a second-order free-rider). Yet here too, moralistic punishment has been observed in the lab (Kurzban, DeScioli, and O’Brien). Fehr’s work demonstrates that punishment continues even with no increase in an individual’s reputation (981), though it does increase with the seriousness of the infraction (980). In summary, ample evidence exists that there are fairness-concerned people who will forfeit gains in order to punish perceived cheaters.

To tie this all together, we need to demonstrate that “suicide bombers” are not merely altruistic punishers who are manipulated by organizations, but rather represent a distinct “type” “hardwired” (to use Smith‘s phrase) to punish with reserves in a bargaining situation where they perceived themselves to be suckered. This can be done with a variation of the ultimatum game. The subject plays an ultimatum game, where the subject is in the receiving position and a confederate (either a computer program or a living accomplish) is in the giver position. The confederate gives the subject a very unfair deal — say, a 9-to-1 split under circumstances where the confederate supposedly had an easier time getting to the experiment as the subject. A “rational man” would accept the nine-to-one split, while a typically fairness-oriented person would reject it. The suicide bomber type is expected to reject. However, the experiment would then give the subject the option of donating material he provided himself (either money, grade credits already earned in a class) etc), in order to punish from the cheater. If there is a “suicide bomber” type that exists without manipulation by organizations, a type should emerge in the experiment which makes such a sacrifice in order to punish the cheating accomplish. Further, if this suicide bomber type matches up with known suicide bombers, men should be over-represented in it generally, as should single men specifically.

8 thoughts on “The Suicide-Bomber Type”

  1. “anyone who has ever experienced the rush of falling deeply in love in all of its fullness is familiar with the sensation of detaching, or rather, sublating the soul in the presence of the beloved”

    OK, then I agree with you. Mental modules use mechanisms, often based on affect, to influence behavior. The altruistic super-punishment module I'm implying may operate through the same sense of euphoria as does love and other altruistic sensations. Players in any game, including the game of life, are affected by mood.

    “yes, people actually punish asymmetrically, which is how you know that eye for an eye is not merely a moral but also an aesthetic judgment.”

    Hmmm… so as you are using the terms, both “morality” and “aesthetics” are part of normative judgement. I can believe this. Morality and aesthetics can both be adaptive, whether in individual or group selection. Indeed, aesthetics may be a mechanism for encouraging eusocial group-oriented behavior (such as giving up your own life to kill your group's enemies).

    “as for why there has never been one suicide bomber, you don't get propagation without some type of aesthetic trap.”

    Yes, but so what? Intentional self-death is intentional self-death. Beautiful suicide and ugly suicide are both suicide.

    Or do you mean something different by suicide than intentional self-death? Or do you believe those bombers are so distracted they are not capable of making cause-and-effect decisions?

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/10/02/suicide-bombers-5gwarriors-and-happy-folks.html

  2. i apologize for the delay in a response. let me jump right in…

    “but arguing that we are dealing with souls who have are detached from themselves seems like magical thinking.”

    i don't think that is so magical. anyone who has ever experienced the rush of falling deeply in love in all of its fullness is familiar with the sensation of detaching, or rather, sublating the soul in the presence of the beloved. anyone who has ever felt “the holy spirit move through them” during a religious ceremony is familiar with the sensation of self sublating ideology. and anyone who has ever felt the one-ness of purpose which a military unit under fire can demonstrante has experience with self sublating phenomena. more importantly, we can view these experiences with enhanced brain imagery… it is a real occurrence, not magical. we can even place lesions in your brain to prevent similar experiences no matter the stimuli. but that is a small point, and i believe we are arguing about a very miniature difference of what it means to be “self-detached”.

    by faith i mean more like what you call ideology… and yes, they are not puppets.

    yes, people actually punish asymmetrically, which is how you know that eye for an eye is not merely a moral but also an aesthetic judgment.

    what i mean, generally, by bringing aesthetic judgment into play is quite similar to what hegel “meant” when he suddenly brought four judgments to play in the science of logic (which, up until that point, was solidly tripartite in all ways). how's that for clarity :)

    seriously, the aesthetic plane is a fourth plane of conflict. that is because we can't help, as humans, but view conflicts not only terms of physicality, not only in terms of morality, not only terms of psychology, but also in terms of aesthetics.

    if you doubt this, consult with a hardened negotiator or a well worn mediator and ask them: “how important is a good apology?” they'll tell you its indispensable. and when they tell what its contents “should” be, you will notice how much of is merely aesthetics.

    or, if you prefer, speak to a good ol battle scarred trial lawyer. ask him whether looks matter. and he, most likely fat, long haired, and somewhat smug looking, will grin, show you his pinkie ring, and say “absolutely”.

    in very much the same way that hegel's silent fourth appears, unannounced, but as a controlling entity in the science of logic, so too does aesthetics appear unannounced in the realm of human conflict, and again as a controlling entity.

    i won't bore you with all the history of this point of view. but suffice it to say, it is a point of view which has been, over time, repeatedly expressed and ignored to the detriment of those ignoring.

    as for why there has never been one suicide bomber, you don't get propogation without some type of aesthetic trap. the ability for suicide bombers to nevertheless propogate immediately as they die is a symptom of winning the aesthetic conflict.

    lincoln understood this very acutely. and finally found a general who understood it as well.

  3. I definitely consider kamikazes to be “suicide bombers,” or altruistic super-punishers.

    “the intent is completely to impact the enemy, with absolutely no concern for their own being”

    I disagree here. A quote from my notes [1]:

    'As the Arab press emphasizes, if martyrs had nothing to lose, sacrifice would be senseless (24): “He who commits suicide kills himself for his own benefit, he who commits martyrdom sacrifices himself for the sake of his religion and his nation. . . . The Mujahed is full of hope” (25).'

    A complete- lack of self-concern would be a form of psychopathy, and psychopathy is not correlated with suicide bombers.

    Obviously suicide bombers discount the value of one's life in light of some gain, whether egoistic or altruistic, but arguing that we are dealing with souls who have are detached from themselves seems like magical thinking.

    “this is achieved not through brainwashing, but through the sublation of the warrior into the presence of his faith.”

    What do you mean by “faith” here? Surely it's not something specifically religious, as Fatah, LTTE, and other secular groups use suicide bombers. If you mean “ideology” then I agree completely, because without a coherent political perspective one wouldn't be acting politically (as suicide bombers do). Or perhaps, and here I would agree, you are just saying that suicide bombers are conscious actors and not mere puppets?

    “most people give into fairness because of its symmetry (an eye for an eye, though brutal, is fair… indeed beautiful if you take it literally).”

    I understand we are mostly agreeing here, but I think the explanation is wrong. People punish asymmetrically, as they perceive the pain they inflect to be less than the pain they receive, even when the force is objectively constant. I think it's better to say “people give into fairness because fairness is a basic human drive.”

    What do you mean by “the aesthetic plane” and that “the modern western man (thanks to kant, i'm afraid to say) has more or less banished aesthetics from the analytical world”?

    Also, by “i don't think there has ever been one suicide bomber”?

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/09/22/altruistic-super-punishment-a-part-of-human-nature-of-at-lea.html

  4. more interesting thoughts dan! we always seem to misinterpret each other 90% of the time… perhaps thats why we have such good discussions ;)

    in your first paragraph, i wonder if you've considered japanese kamikaze pilots…? are they in an in-between spot? could be a nice foil regardless.

    the second paragraph i disagree with. suicide bombers aren't killing themselves intentionally. they are figthing in the most meaningful way possible. they may empirically be killing themselves… but intentionally is what i'd argue about. the intent is completely to impact the enemy, with absolutely no concern for their own being. this is achieved not through brainwashing, but through the sublation of the warrior into the presence of his faith. that brings me to the next para., i don't see freedom and suicide bombing as mutually incompatible… in fact i see freedom as the predicate of the bomber (not the other way around).

    we don't have much by the way of disagreement in your next paragraphs. have you read “getting past no”? provides insight into how these roles play out in the negotiation process.

    “fairness” isn't an abstract concept to me. aristotle “fairly” well defines it as equality or balance. that's sufficient for me. most people give into fairness because of its symmetry (an eye for an eye, though brutal, is fair… indeed beautiful if you take it literally). this is something that i think is often missing from the current crowd of commentators on these sorts of things.

    the aesthetic plane is very real. i've lost many friends over this debate, and lost the respect of even more. but it is absolutely the stupidest thing imaginable to deny that aesthetics plays a major role in warfare.

    the modern western man (thanks to kant, i'm afraid to say) has more or less banished aesthetics from the analytical world… in the realm of neuropsyschology, aesthetics are making a comeback thanks to enhanced brain imagery… but that world is very small and takes time to influence everyone else.

    this is unfortunate because it is on the aesthetic plane that the next battles (and indeed part of this one) will be fought. fairness is both a moral and an aethestic concept. indeed, fairness is dictated in the first instance by its aethestic quality, and translated in the second instance into merely moral designs.

    america's constitution is aethestically a living, breathing, work of beauty. it breathes symmetry. its processes are fashioned with craftsmanship. it not art per se, but it is artful.

    morally though, it is altogether a neutral document. the morality of the country is a result of the people choosing to participate in the government.

    suicide bombers can be aesthetically powerful. if you don't believe me, take a look at goya's un perro. or read dostoyevsky's notes from underground. solitude, itself a primarily aesthetic concept, can be extremely radical and influential. solitude can spark revolutions, change the world forever. this is what the suicide bomber plays on.

    this, for me, is a point which is missed by most and it might help explain why people feel so inspired by these sacrificial acts. i don't think there has ever been one suicide bomber.

  5. interesting thoughts. i know this isn't the point of your post, but i can't but wonder what suicide bombers would say to this? i've always argued that we shouldn't fall into the law and economics trap (or game theory trap if you like) when it comes to soldiers.

    i think you might be falling into it. for example, your hypothesis more or less states that a suicide bomber is someone who kills himself for some reason or another.

    but the “suicide” aspect of the bomber (or soldier) is whats up for debate. i mean of course, it isn't a question that they bomb, but it seems very much a question that they die. query, has there ever been one suicide bomber?

    i doubt very seriously that these soldiers believe they are killing themselves for one reason or another. and what these soldiers believe, they do. it never ceases to amaze me how foreign a concept this is to contemporary americans. we've figured out a way to keep the battles in our souls from impacting our physical world for so long we presume there is no other way.

    one might say then that a suicide bomber isn't really engaging in suicide at all. they have bridged the gap from belief to action. they are what they think. thus, they are not killing themselves, but living in freedom. when that happens, what choice does one really have? a suicide bomber then would be a soldier whose reason to fight has become their reason to live.

    certainly such a soul would never predicate his freedom on something so meaningless as “to punish injustice”. this is far too abstract.

    suicide bombers aren't killing themselves in a useless cloud of dust, they are fighting concretely in a most meaningful way.

    i would change the question… it isn't so much a “ti esti” as a distinguish… distinguish between a soldier in our army versus a soldier in aQ.

  6. Federalist,

    In the human mind, there is little difference between .01 and .02 or between .98 and .99. But all the difference in the world exists between 0 and .01 and .99 and 1.0. Thus I think one can establish a clear line of difference between someone who engages in actions whose known outcome is self-death (Islamic suicide bombers, captains who go down with the ship, &c) and someone who engages in risky but rewarded outcomes (a man who charges an enemy pillbox, etc). In the later case you are observing a high-risk, high-reward strategy: the hero gets the girl, &c. In the former case you are observing a total-risk, no-reward strategy… at least from the individual level of analysis.

    Suicide bombing isn't suicide in the sense that one wishes to cease one's suffering through ending life — but it is suicide in the sense that one kills one's self intentionally.

    I'm not sure why you define “living in freedom” as mutually incompatible “killing themselves.”

    You criticize the “economics” trap, and I think I agree with you here. Modern economics is based on the Rational Man Model, a variation of the Standard Social Sciences Model (SSSM) that has guided the social sciences for at least half a century. Rational Man assumes that an individual thinks logically, and acts consistently, to achieve coherent sets of egoistic preferences.

    This is not true, as has been observed over and over again. Invite someone to play the “Dictator game,” where they are given some money and the option of splitting it with another player. Statistically, people will split, even though such behavior is irrational. Or play the ultimatum game, in which someone has to accept or reject a bargain (say, a 9-1 split of some reward). Strikingly, most people will consistently reject an unfair deal even though “rationally” they should accept it. Now, there are “types” or “strategies” that have been observed — some people, say 20% are consistently “rational” (disproportionately asperger's or autism patients), a smaller portion, around 10%, are generous suckers who go along with anything. The bulk of humanity is composed of “wary cooperators” who will be irrationally generous until they are screwed, whereupon they become irrationally vindictive.

    I'm not sure how you would characterize fairness — is it “something so meaningless as 'to punish injustice'… far too abstract” or a belief that can be bridged into an action — but it is a known drive that causes men (disproportionally) to physically enjoy the pain of cheaters and forces nearly all of us to share with others even when we don't have to. The perception of fairness physically exists within the brain. Hardly “abstract” at all.

  7. i suppose i meant that self-death which gives birth to more self-death of the same kind and for the same purpose isn't really death at all… but a type of life.

    and yes we agree, aesthetic choices are a type of normative judgment. or as aristotle put so aptly, there is the study of what is, and there is the study of what ought to be. poetry the latter, science the former. (of course science is a horrible way to translate, but you get the point).

    there was a school of thought which held that what truly ought to be is identical with what truly is. but ever since kant, the western view has been to separate the two. and that makes sense. if you can never lie, you can never have art. but art, and the lies which it tells, is infinitely more powerful than kant's categorical imperative ever could hope to be. kant's morality is dry, empty and cold. aesthetics give us color, relief, context.

    imagine a game of bridge. there are always four players. but only three of the players really “play the game”. the fourth is the one who places their cards at the beginning and becomes “the dummy”.

    even though the dummy never really does anything, the dummy is in fact the prime mover of the entire game. everyone reacts to the dummy's cards.

    in conflict, aesthetics is a type of dummy. it is a silent player, which controls the whole board.

  8. Federalist,

    “i suppose i meant that self-death which gives birth to more self-death of the same kind and for the same purpose isn't really death at all… but a type of life.”

    A type that has a direct reproductive value of 0 and a heartbeat of 0.

    I understand what you mean — that such death can be aesthetically or normatively good — but such does not mean it is not death. Perhaps, to use your words, a suicide bomber's other type of life “ought to be” — but that doesn't mean it is.

    Arguing, in a discussion of evolutionary types, that death is not death, seems like obfuscation.

    “there was a school of thought which held that what truly ought to be is identical with what truly is.”

    The so-called “Optimism” of Voltaire's Candide?

    “kant's morality is dry, empty and cold.”

    Kant always seemed like an attempt to take the Christ out of Christianity — to preserve the morality of a discarded moral system.

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