Skip to main content
careful what you say.jpg


Careful What You Say About Anti-Social Acts

Careful What You Say About Anti-Social Acts

In an increasingly polarised world, words could make the difference between fomenting aggression and quashing it.

Threats are usually scarier when they appear to have an organisation behind them, as journalists and editors well know. Unceasing media coverage of the actions of ISIS, Boko Haram, the Ku Klux Klan, and others provokes a strong visceral reaction that, perhaps not coincidentally, translates into increased newsstand sales and online clicks. A less cynical explanation of current media practice would be that the involvement, however tangential, of these groups gives greater significance to what could otherwise be considered localised acts of anti-social aggression.

However, media protocol conceals a potentially even scarier reality. The internet has changed how hate groups win new converts. Contact with organisational recruiters and leaders – in-person or virtual – is no longer required. ISIS sanctions online followers to launch terror acts entirely independently, and claim them on behalf of the organisation. In blurring the line between lone gunman and loyal foot soldier, technology has fundamentally changed what it means to “belong” to groups such as ISIS – and has called into question whether the group or the loosely affiliated individual should bear the lion’s share of blame for atrocities.

Inhibiting anti-social influence

More than media ethics is at stake. My research on promoting pro-social behaviour has found that feelings of connectedness to others cause us to act in a more socially responsible manner, due to the sense of empowerment we derive from connectedness. Being part of a closely-knit group – or simply feeling psychologically connected to the group – bolsters the belief that our actions matter and puts a human face on their consequences.

Empowerment, however, is an amoral force that can be channelled in darker directions. Based on my research on pro-social behaviour, I suspect that in the world of online hate groups, a parallel mechanism to the above may trigger acts considered anti-social by the overwhelming majority of human beings. The sense of empowerment-through-connection that led participants in our social responsibility studies to donate time and money to worthy causes could work the opposite way. Linking up with a hate group may validate and reinforce the fitfully violent imaginings of extremely alienated people, enabling their online rage to explode into actual violence. If empowerment works like an explosive, identification with an infamous, globally feared group like ISIS may act as the detonator – triggering a psychological chain of events that turns a potentially harmless individual into a deadly weapon.

How we describe crimes committed in the name of collectives, then, could be key to preventing more from occurring. Emphasising group involvement – even though the group per se may have done little or nothing other than inspiring the perpetrators – may capture the imaginations of people with anti-social sympathies and embolden them to follow suit. Attributing acts to individuals instead of groups may constrain anti-social disaffection from flowering into active fanaticism.

Promoting the pro-social

Furthermore, past research suggests that careful use of language may help promote pro-social sentiments within people who feel at odds with society, essentially defusing the bomb. Media coverage that drives home the human cost of anti-social violence – victim profiles and interviews with grieving families – has the potential not only to stir dormant empathy in the disaffected, but also to inspire feelings of connectedness to a larger human community.

Finally, language invoking a broadly humanistic sense of connectedness may be better for inspiring socially responsible actions than that which references narrower affiliation, such as a professional or social context. To steer newly-empowered individuals in the most humane direction, focus their attention on right vs. wrong at the most basic level. If we incline toward the optimistic belief that every budding terrorist is also a human being possessing the potential to do good, then society should do all it can to enable its isolates to make pro-social choices. And that starts with seeing through the fearsome iconography and propaganda of extremist groups, to the real story: human suffering.

Natalia Karelaia is an Associate Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD.

Follow INSEAD Knowledge on Twitter and Facebook

About the author(s)

View Comments

Didier Baudois

13/01/2017, 12.18 am

Bene curris sed extra viam...

You wrote an interesting article but miss the target.
If hate groups win new converts, it's not only a question of empowerment, it's mostly a question of which feedback loop is at work in which kind of empowerment.
In pro-social groups, a negative feedback loop is at work. In anti-social groups, a positive feedback is at work.

A positive feedback amplifies the deviations with the initial situation, the system increases its own deviation, e.g. in the case of an explosion.
A negative feedback tends to weaken the deviations. The deviation decreases and the system falls back to its initial situation.

In a pro-social group, the member's behaviour is controlled by the others and the negative feedback forces the member to comply with the implicit and explicit rules. After every feedback received to maintain the group's homeostasis, the member may feel a kind of frustration. The empowerment grows with the status inside the group, it is long to acquire and is always susceptible to be put into question by any other member. Consequently, the convert has to suffer a long period of frustration before being rewarded.

In an anti-social group, e.g. a hate group, the control is based on the exaggeration of the latest behavior, the one who dares to go a little further is empowered and is complimented for having pushed the limits. Consequently, the new convert who dares to transgress the limits is quickly rewarded.

Conclusion: if you want a fast reward, you would better choose an anti-social group.

BTW neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain evolves slowly and the moral and ethic behaviour are the last acquired capabilities around the age of 25. There is no mystery if anti-social groups are mostly made of young people and if recruiters target this category. These people lack a moral control and they appreciate a fast reward.

Naturally, there are other factors at work but this can be the subject of another message.

Leave a Comment
Please log in or sign up to comment.