Why have thousands of foreign fighters, including men and women from Europe and North America, gone to Syria and Iraq to support the Islamic State?  Were they making rational decisions that maximized their expected utility, as most economists would say?  Were they using some fast and frugal heuristic to decide what to do with their lives, as some psychologists would say?   I propose a different answer:  foreigners decide to go to fight with the Islamic State because it provides a good fit with their fundamental values and beliefs – emotional coherence. 

On June 28, 2014, in the newly captured Iraqi city of Mosul, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the birth of the Islamic State, superseding the previous Islamic State in Iraq and  Syria (ISIS, ISIL).  The new state claimed to supersede all borders, providing a basis for the struggle between the Muslim camp of holy warriors (mujahidin) and the opposing camp of Jews, Crusaders, and their allies.  In 2015, despite American bombing raids, the Islamic State expanded its territory to include the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra, moving within 100 kilometers of Baghdad.  

Understanding the success of the Islamic State requires understanding its ideology, the system of ideas that govern its thoughts and actions.  For a typical adherent of the Islamic State, these include: Islam, Sunni, Quran (Koran), Jihad,  sharia law, purity,  monotheism, and caliphate. The binding of concepts with emotions produces values such as the highly positive value of Islam. The concepts in an ideology can also have negative values, which for the Islamic State include Shia, idolatry, apostasy, the West, and infidel.

Here is a value map that shows some of the conceptual and emotional structure of the Islamic State ideology. Green ovals indicate the connected concepts that contribute to the emotional appeal of the Islamic State, and red hexagons indicate the  negative emotional values about enemies. Solid lines indicate mutual support, and dotted lines indicate incompatibility.  Positive and negative values are only one aspect of the emotional mental states of Islamic State adherents, which also include more specific emotions such as anger and devotion.

Paul Thagard
Source: Paul Thagard

Fundamental to the ideology of the Islamic State is the concept of Islam, the religion founded by Muhammad in Mecca in the seventh century. Defenders of the Islamic State attach an intensely positive emotional value to it because of their upbringings, studies, or conversion experiences. This attachment makes it a sacred value, not just in having religious meaning, but also in being a value that cannot simply be traded off against other values. Rather, the emotional value attached to Islam is so fundamental to the self-identities and emotional structure of the proponents of the Islamic State that it cannot be challenged. Anyone who does challenge it deserves to die.

The system of values shown in the figures will seem bizarre to most readers of Psychology Today, but can have enormous appeal to disaffected young Muslims in Western countries. When they watch the videos or read the literature produced by the Islamic state, they are inspired to see fighting for the Islamic State as a route to glory and honor. There need be no calculation of expected utility or application of heuristics, any more than there is for most people when we face important decisions. Rather, because of the good fit of the Islamic state ideology with the desires and beliefs of disgruntled youth, the ideology provides a strong amount of emotional coherence and therefore produces actions of fighting and sometimes dying in Iraq and Syria.

President Obama said this about the battle against the Islamic State:  "Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they're defeated by better ideas."    To defeat an ideology, it should help to have an understanding of (1) the mental structures constituting an ideology such as the system of ideas shown in value maps, and (2) what makes an ideology appealing - its emotional coherence.     

Here are links for more information on: value maps, ideology, and decision making as emotional coherence.    

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