Reference: Baez S, Herrera E, García AM, Manes F, Young L, Ibáñez, A. Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists. Nature Human Behavior, 2017, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0118


The capacity to reason about intentions is crucial to judge whether others’ actions are right or wrong, harmless or harmful, acceptable or punishable. Present results reveal that extreme terrorists judge others’ actions by focusing on the outcomes of an action rather than its underlying intentions, suggesting that their moral code prioritizes ends over means. This abnormal pattern of moral cognition may be one of the key factors behind the cruel acts committed by terrorist groups. In brief, this result highlights the importance of evaluating moral judgment to characterize terrorist groups and to understand the socio-cognitive processes implicated in their brutal acts.


As shown by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, terrorism is one of the most pernicious phenomena for contemporary societies. Terrorist practices not only obliterate the freedom and physical integrity of victims, but they also destabilize governments, undermine civil harmony, and threaten economic development. This is tragically corroborated by the recent history of Colombia, a country marked by shocking escalations of paramilitary terrorist violence. With extreme violence rising for more than 60 years, Colombia features one of the greatest insurgency rates in the world. In particular, terrorism has become the main political and economic tool of paramilitary groups –i.e., illegal right-wing armed organizations first formed by state and landowners in response to guerrilla movements. While multiple disciplines are struggling to understand the atrocities of terrorism, the contributions from cognitive and behavioral sciences have been virtually null.

In civilized social niches, individuals tend to attach greater importance to intentions than outcomes in judging the morality of an action. Thus, actions aimed to induce harm, regardless of their success, are typically deemed less morally permissible than those in which harm was neither intended nor inflicted, or merely accidental. By the same token, extreme terrorists could be distinctively characterized by deviant forms of moral cognition, arguably shaped by their particular cultural milieus. Specifically, if terrorists deem it morally appropriate to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of an aim, their moral judgments may be critically rooted in the success of an action rather than the probity of its underlying intention.

Against this background, the study by Baez et al. assessed the moral judgments and social-cognitive profiles of terrorists from a paramilitary group. The authors evaluated 66 incarcerated members of an illegal armed paramilitary group, designated as a terrorist organization by multiple countries and institutions. All of them were convicted of murder, with a mean of 33 victims per subject (most of them were accountable for several massacres, with death tolls sometimes exceeding 600 victims). They had also engaged in other crimes, such as theft, kidnapping, and fraud. The researchers also assessed 66 sociodemographically matched controls (non-criminals). Participants performed a well-characterized moral judgment task that disentangles the contributions of intentions and outcomes to moral judgment. Additional tasks were also administered to assess relevant cognitive-affective domains (intellectual level, cognitive functions, aggressive behavior, and emotion recognition).

In brief, the more critical findings concerned moral cognition. Moral judgment in terrorists was found to be abnormally guided by outcomes rather than by the integration of intentions and outcomes. Neither of these results was affected by different executive skills, emotions or levels of aggression.

To establish how specific these patterns were to terrorists, as opposed to other criminals, Baez et al. administered the moral judgment task to a second control group of incarcerated murderers with no terrorist background. This second group was matched with the terrorists for years of imprisonment, age, gender, and education. Relative to both this sample and the first control group, terrorists judged accidental harm as less permissible and attempted harm as more permissible. No significant differences were observed between both control groups in any condition.

Considering the specific distortions observed in terrorists’ moral cognition, the authors conducted a multiple regression analysis to explore whether moral judgment was associated with individual differences’ profiles (intellectual level, executive functions, aggressive behavior, and emotion recognition). Crucially, the logistic regression model showed that moral judgment was the only domain significantly associated with group membership.

By using automatic classification tools (Receiver-operating characteristic curves, ROC and support vector machine, SVM) we evaluated whether any of the assessed domains successfully discriminated terrorists from non-criminals. ROC curve analyses revealed that moral judgment was the measure with the best sensitivity and specificity to distinguish between terrorists and non-criminals (>90% of correct classification). By the same token, the comparison with the SVM classification confirmed that moral judgment performance, by itself, was the best measure to classify the groups, even when compared with the combination of other domains revealing distorted performance in terrorists. Thus, deviant moral judgment seems to constitute the most prominent attribute of the terrorist sample.

This approach to understanding terrorists’ social-cognitive profiles has important legal and forensic implications. Terrorists’ atrocious practices have grown so dramatically that Colombia is now among the countries with highest levels of terrorism. Amnesty International estimates that, in the last two decades, at least 70,000 people have been killed by terrorists in this country. Thousands more have been victims of enforced disappearance, kidnapping, and torture, mostly in the hands of paramilitary groups. The terrorist’s outcome-based moral judgments may be related to the belief that any action can be justified insofar as it favors the accomplishment of an aim. This pattern opposes the widely described “harm magnification effect”, which shows that people overestimate the damage caused by intentional harm compared to accidental harm, assigning more punishment and moral condemnation. Indeed, terrorists judged attempted harm as more permissible and accidental harm as less permissible than did non-criminals. Moreover, unlike the latter, terrorists considered accidental harm to be more morally wrong than attempted harm.

In conclusion, this study provides unprecedented evidence about the socio-cognitive profile of terrorists, showing that moral judgment is the measure that best distinguished between terrorists and non-criminals. From a translational perspective, our findings have legal and forensic implications. Moral reasoning is essential for proper social functioning and perhaps for preventing delinquent behavior. Sensitive instruments tapping socio-cognitive profiles could eventually contribute to characterize terrorist behavior.