Connections between beliefs and behaviour are not routine and when they happen they require explanation. Personal experience and a passing acquaintance with a thing we call the subconscious both tell us that.
I am sometimes a little taken aback by the forcefulness of some people’s claims that “of course beliefs determine what people do”. The context in which this is dogmatically asserted is discussion relating to Islam. I really can’t imagine the same dogmatism surfacing if almost any other mainstream religion or non-religious belief system were being addressed.
If a terrorist shouts “God is Great” before opening fire or blowing himself up in a crowded place then bizarrely that one phrase is taken to represent the entire motivation of that act. To point to videotapes and other remnants of far more wide-ranging conversations and arguments in the lead up to that murder will not change some minds.
So I quote here a piece that has long been in waiting to be included in my next post on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s book on the causes of radicalization and terrorist acts, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. It won’t hurt to use it now and repeat it later:
Opinions and attitudes are not always good predictors of action. Of all those who might say they want to help starving children, how many would actually donate to UNICEF or work in a local soup kitchen? But for the Russian students of the 1870s, radicalization in opinion was often associated with radicalization in action. How are we to understand this unusually high consistency between opinion and behavior?
One possibility is the degree to which the era was swept up in a culture of change. Tectonic plates of Russian society were shifting, and the young generation who grew up amidst this change, themselves beneficiaries and victims of new hopes and new norms, felt that it was their job to rewrite history.
Social psychologist Robert Abelson advanced a similar perspective in relation to student activism in the United States. Abelson reviewed evidence that beliefs are not automatically translated into feelings, and feelings are not automatically translated into behavior. He then identified three kinds of encouragement for acting on beliefs: seeing a model perform the behavior; seeing oneself as a “doer,” the kind of person who translates feelings into action; and unusual emotional investment that overcomes uncertainties about what to do and fear of looking foolish. Abelson brought these ideas to focus on 1970s student activism in the United States:3. Abelson, R. (1972). Are attitudes necessary. In B.T. King and E. McGinnies (Eds), Attitudes, conflict, and social change, pp. 19-32. New York: Academic Press.
. . . it is interesting to note that certain forms of activism, for example, campus activism, combine all three of the above types of encouragement cues. Typically. the campus activist has at least a vague ideology that pictures the student as aggrieved, and provides both social support and self-images as doers to the participants in the group. A great deal of the zest and excitement accompanying the activities of student radicals, whether or not such activities are misplaced, thus may be due to the satisfaction provided the participants in uniting a set of attitudes with a set of behaviors.3
As U.S. students of the 1970s discussed, dared, and modeled their way to the excitement linking new ideas with new behaviors . . . , so too did Russian students of the 1870s. [Friction, Kindle version, bolded emphasis mine]
It happens in reverse, too, as we well know (except when some of us have Islam on our minds). Most of us have heard of the Milgram experiment where an unexpectedly high number of people behaved contrary to their beliefs about how they should treat others and suffered emotional stress for a time as a consequence.