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Neural Bases of Sacred Values in Violent Conflicts

Studies of our colleagues indicate that “Sacred Values” (SVs) define primary reference groups, “Who we are” (see Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges’ studies). SVs drive actions independently of risks or expected outcomes, as in decisions to refuse political compromise whatever the consequences, to engage in violence. Regardless of utilitarian calculations of organizations, for example, activists as well as their leaders appear to act as “devoted actors” willing to make sacrifices based on a deontological evaluation of “appropriateness” rather than an instrumental calculus. Understanding the neural basis of this process is a key to understand radicalization and conflict. Our neuroimaging study series is designed to: 1) characterize neural processes underlying group conformity on decision making over SVs; 2) identify neural markers that distinguish SV conformity to non-SV conformity; and 3) characterize neural processes underlying attachment to concrete markers of SVs and how they change under social influence. The ultimate goal of the study is to pinpoint what promotes, weakens or boosts radicalization, as well as to elicit cognitive models and pertinent features of moral decision making of extremism.


  • Minerva Initiative. United States Department of Defense FA9550-14-0030 (PI: Oscar Vilarroya Oliver for the UAB; 790,000 €; 2014-2017)
  • Bial Foundation BIAL-163/14-SACRED VALUES (EA612563) (PI: Adolf Tobeña/Oscar vilarroya; 49,500 €; 2015-2018)

Relevant publications

Pretus C., Hamid N, Sheikh H, Ginges J, Tobeña A, Davis, R, Vilarroya O*, Atran S (2018). Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Sacred Values and Vulnerability to Violent Extremism. Frontiers in Psychology  2018; 9: 2462, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02462.

Hamid N, Pretus C., Atran S, Crockett Molly Ginges J, Sheikh H, Tobeña A, Carmona S, Gomez A, Davis, R, Vilarroya O* (2019) Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate. R. Soc. open sci.

Pretus C., Hamid N, Sheikh H, Gomez A, Ginges J, Tobeña A, Davis, R, Vilarroya O*, Atran S (2019) Ventromedial and dorsolateral prefrontal interactions underlie will to fight and die for a cause, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience nsz034,