Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Manipulation by Others

  • Kristen SymeEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_587-1



Theoretically, manipulation by others into committing acts of suicide terrorism is a form of duplicity in which an individual or group activates evolved mechanisms (i.e., kinship psychology or mating psychology) that over evolutionary time produced reproductive benefits; however, the benefits in relation to suicide terrorism are not forthcoming and results in maladaptive behavior.


Suicide terrorism is an act of outward aggression in which the perpetrating agent willfully sacrifices his or her own life with intent to inflict as much damage as possible on civilian casualties. Suicide terrorism is systematic and often perpetuated by political organizations (e.g., Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Tamil Tigers, among others) that disseminate messages to followers through various media outlets and often train adherents in institutionalized settings apart from their natal residences. Some evolutionary theorists hypothesize that these institutions convince followers to partake in suicide terror missions by manipulating evolved psychological mechanisms i.e., kinship psychology and mating psychology. According to these models, terror organizations use tactics that piggyback on these evolved mechanisms; however, the evolved benefits are not forthcoming as the cues are deceptive. Thus, these hypotheses are distinct from evolutionary models of suicide terrorism, which contend that the act incurs manifest fitness benefits.

Theories and Evidence for Suicide Terrorism as Manipulation by Others

The two most popular evolutionary explanations for suicide terrorism contend that terror organizations recruit suicide attackers by manipulating evolved psychological mechanisms. Informed by kin selection, the first explanation claims that terror institutions effectively deceive would-be suicide attackers by acting on kinship mechanisms, thus facilitating self-sacrifice (Qirko 2004, 2009, 2013). The second explanation argues instead that sexual access manipulations form the basis of the underlying motivation for suicide terrorism (Kanazawa 2007; Thayer and Hudson 2010). Though there is data that backs both hypotheses, each suffers from theoretical and empirical impediments.

Brief overview of kinship psychology manipulation: The hypothesis that terror organization manipulate followers into accomplishing suicide missions by deceptively activating kinship psychology rests on the theory of kin selection (Hamilton 1963; Smith 1964). According to Hamilton’s rule (1963) an organism should act altruistically if the reproductive benefits to its kin outweigh the costs of the act to the organism. Mathematically, Hamilton’s rule is represented by rb > c where r is the degree of genetic relatedness, b is the reproductive benefits to related kin, and c is the cost to the agent. Kin selection was a groundbreaking evolutionary theory that demonstrated how traits that harm individual organisms could be selected for in a population.

In order for an organism to act altruistically, there must be a means for it to distinguish kin from non-kin, using kin recognition cues to calculate the degree of genetic relatedness (r) between the self and other. Hypothesized cues of genetic kinship among humans include physical proximity during development, shared phenotypic traits, and the use of kinship terminology (Qirko 2004; Alexander 1990; Michener and Fletcher 1987; Hamilton 1964; Sherman 1985). Qirko (2004, 2009, 2013) predicted that institutions that seek out recruits for suicide missions would employ the following tactics: (1) prefer recruits in earlier stages of development; (2) separate recruits from their genetic kin; (3) promote the use of kin referents between group members; (4) encourage the use of markers that mimic shared phenotypes (e.g., uniforms or other identifiers); and (5) facilitate close proximity among the in-group members in the institutional setting. Evidence indicates that, in fact, terror organizations often employ these strategies to foster a sense of kinship among group members.

Brief overview of sexual access manipulation: Alternatively, some theorists have proposed that the promise of access to mates in the afterlife (i.e., 72 virgins) is a central motivator for suicide terrorism (Kanazawa 2007; Thayer and Hudson 2010). The promise of sexual reward, though deceptive, relies on mechanisms for reciprocal altruism wherein one agent assists to increase the fitness of another agent at an initial cost to itself on the assumption that the first agent will be assisted in kind in the future (Trivers 1971). Kanazwa (2007) claims that the sanctioning of polygyny in Islam creates a reproductive skew, effectively excluding younger males from the mating market. Islamic terror organizations highlight sexual rewards in the afterlife in their discourses, a teaching that is downplayed or contested by other factions of Islam. Furthermore, the acquisition of rewards in the afterlife, including sexual access, is a commonly cited motivator among Palestinian combatants (Hafez 2006).

In a similar vein, the esteem afforded suicide terrorists in death by local communities is an indirect means through which terror networks might access male mating psychology. High social status is correlated with reproductive success in humans and non-human primates (Smith 2004), which is directly linked to risk taking behavior in the realm of intrasexual selection (Daly 2001).

Overall, the empirical evidence to support the sexual access manipulation hypothesis of suicide terrorism is minimal. Sexual access manipulations might factor into cost-benefit calculations; however, this mechanism alone appears insufficient to explain suicide terrorism, especially since many suicide attackers are not low status at least in terms of income and education (Atran 2003; Berrebi 2003). Moreover, as highlighted by Lawson et al. (2008) the rates of polygyny are fairly low in these populations, and the percent of never married males in Islamic populations is about the same as in the West (United Nations. Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division 2004).


Terror organizations regularly rely on strategies to solicit followers for suicide attacks that appear to directly act on psychological mechanisms with well-demonstrated evolutionary benefits. These institutions foster a sense of kinship among their members, and they often perpetuate religious teachings that promise sexual rewards in the afterlife for martyrdom.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington State UniversityVancouverUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Doug P. VanderLaan
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Toronto MississaugaMississaugaCanada
  2. 2.Child, Youth and Family DivisionCentre for Addiction and Mental HealthTorontoCanada