A pioneering study, carried out by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), has investigated the neural interrelations between sacred values, social exclusion and extremism with violent manifestations. This research has shown that the social exclusion of a group of people increases the amount of ideological values for which they are willing to fight and die.
A disturbing result, at a time in history where the social exclusion created by the economic recession has put in check a very high percentage of the population. Also for the massive migratory movements to which millions of people are forced. According to this study, the fact of being socially marginalized can lead to very radical and extreme tendencies in the way of thinking and acting.
The study has been carried out with neuroimaging techniques in young people in Catalonia. The research has been led by the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The Hospital del Mar Institute for Medical Research (IMIM) has also participated in collaboration with other institutions. The group of individuals in the sample were young boys, vulnerable to radicalization, Moroccans, residents and schooling in Catalonia.
Published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, the study, conducted in two phases, has studied the neural substrate of values that are perceived as non-negotiable. Values that are not waived under any condition. Especially the values linked to ideological ascription, religious or national / community identity. These factors have an identity component that facilitates the individual’s perception of belonging to a social group of reference.
Magnetic resonance images focused on lower left frontal rotation. The result showed an increase in the activity of this brain area while young people responded to their willingness to die and fight for their values. This is a brain area related to this type of values and the processing of rules.
Dangerous social exclusion
The results obtained by Clara Pretus, first author of the article, lead us to think that social exclusion can produce a sacralization of group values. That is to say, the values defended in groups could acquire the rank of sacred as much or more than the personal values. And this seems to occur both in the neuronal activity and in the will expressed by the study participants.
If we think of the zones activated by the defense of sacred values, this study is showing us that this type of values are processed through a reasoning based on duty, “what needs to be done”. Little relevance in this case would be given to the cost-benefit evaluation. That which is applied to values not considered sacred, which tend to be more flexible and with more opportunities for negotiation.
Polarizing the results
This research has been carried out with a group of people very vulnerable to radicalization due to their condition of permanent social exclusion. But perhaps it is worthwhile to stop and reflect on why so many radical attitudes are appearing in our society in recent years.
Social exclusion can take many forms. We find it individually, but we also support it to a greater or lesser degree in relation to the feeling of belonging that we have. And the truth is that we have many feelings of belonging: more than we can identify in a first analysis.
On the other hand, recent research is showing that social exclusion, of any kind, can favor the radicalization of ideas and attitudes. This could indicate why so many extreme opinions are appearing on different topics, such as politics or religion.
Checking the values
Maybe it’s time to review the personal and group values that each one carries on their backs. Because the truth is that, in many cases, they are only values inherited from a culture and an environment. Perhaps it is time to begin to distinguish which are sacred values and which are not.