The popular and highly informative Discovery Science series Through the wormhole returned this past week to give us yet another season of mind-melding information. The show, hosted by Morgan Freeman, began with a serious and much-debated issue for its season premiere, trying to understand what really goes on inside the mind of someone who has been radicalized.

The group dynamics of terrorist outfits

A small group of seemingly outnumbered terrorists have managed to get the best of military forces around the world time and time again.

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In order to understand why terrorists work well together, the show highlighted the work of anthropologist Scott Atran. He has been interviewing members of ISIS who were recently captured, and tried to reveal the semantics behind their dynamics.

Atran revealed that terrorists, much like construction workers, share a very intimate bond with their fellow group members, and are willing to do anything to keep them safe, including giving up their own families. While construction workers are still able to maintain their own identity within this group, and even act against the group’s best interest at times, terrorists cannot separate themselves from the group and are completely dedicated to the cause that binds them together. This allows them to act fearless and selflessly in times of peril, and even out-muscle their opponents even when they are outnumbered.

Dehumanizing effect

In order to understand how people are able to completely detach themselves from external groups and commit atrocious acts for the sake of their own interests, Through the wormhole brought on psychologist Jay Van Bavel. He has created a software that tries to understand when people perceive a face to be human, by making the software transform the face of a doll into a human being.

When students were asked to make a decision about when the face appears to be human, most of them would decide at the half way mark of the transformation. This decision however happened faster when they were told that the face belonged to a member of their college, and slowed down when they were told that the face was of a person from a rival college. Jay noticed that we perceive people to be human based on interest groups, and not much else.

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The lone wolves

The show also tried to look at ‘lone wolves’ or solo terrorists who were carrying out anonymous attacks around the world. Social psychologist Sophia Moskalenko spent many years understanding the mindset of these individuals, and narrated the example of captured terrorist Momin Khawaja to make her point. After understanding Khawaja's life thanks to a detailed account found in a diary in his home, Sophia explains that he was an intelligent, talented, and sensitive man who turned to radicalism only because he felt too strongly for his people.

He felt obligated to pick a side in the war against Muslims, and he just couldn't stay out of it. She says that had circumstances been slightly different, Momin’s life would have turned out a lot more peaceful. The show explains that people turn to extremist views purely based on strong ideologies sometimes, and it takes very little to radicalize them once they make up their mind.

Time to disengage

To conclude the episode, the show used the work of prominent evolutionary anthropologist Peter Durgin.

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He predicted the rise of ISIS eight years before it happened, and he has spent his career looking at the rise and fall of empires throughout history. Peter tells us that the best way to handle global terrorist outfits is by disengaging them entirely, and letting them fade on their own.

He points out that American intervention has only created more problems, and that these opposing forces get weaker as the opposition itself begins to fade. This is quite a radical idea, one that has never been tried before, but it might be worth a shot in these testing times.