Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The psychology of martyrdom: Making the ultimate sacrifice in the name of a cause

By Jocelyn Belanger, Julie Caouette, Keren Sharvit, and Michelle Dugas
Personality and Social Psychology
107.3 (Sep 2014): 494-515.

Martyrdom is defined as the psychological readiness to suffer and sacrifice one’s life for a cause. An integrative set of 8 studies investigated the concept of martyrdom by creating a new tool to quantitatively assess individuals’ propensity toward self-sacrifice. Studies 1A–1C consisted of psychometric work attesting to the scale’s unidimensionality, internal consistency, and temporal stability while examining its nomological network. Studies 2A–2B focused on the scale’s predictive validity, especially as it relates to extreme behaviors and suicidal terrorism. Studies 3–5 focused on the influence of self-sacrifice on automatic decision making, costly and altruistic behaviors, and morality judgments. Results involving more than 2,900 participants from different populations, including a terrorist sample, supported the proposed conceptualization of martyrdom and demonstrated its importance for a vast repertoire of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral phenomena. Implications and future directions for the psychology of terrorism are discussed.


Dying for a cause? The very concept seems perplexing and bizarre. How could people in their right mind be willing to sacrifice their lives for an idea? Are we not hedonistic beings created to seek pleasure and avoid pain and motivated to survive above all? Yet the phenomenon of self-sacrifice is real enough, and suicide bombing seems to have become terrorists’ weapon of choice in recent years. Though social scientists’ interest in the psychology of self-sacrifice has been accentuated as of late (e.g., Gambetta, 2006; Kruglanski, Chen, Dechesne, & Fishman, 2009; Kruglanski et al., 2014; Pape, 2006), the idea of self-sacrifice or martyrdom is hardly new: Accounts of individuals dying on the altar of religious and political ideologies existed long before the tragedy of 9/11, the Japanese kamikaze of World War II, or even the crucifixion of Jesus Christ millennia ago. Yet it appears that no quick and easy answer can be conjured up to explain this phenomenon.

The entire article is here, behind a paywall.