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What binds military fighters or terrorists together so tightly that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives for their causes?

Shared bad memories bind fighters and terrorists to their groups

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Previous research has shown that such extreme behaviour can be driven by 'identity fusion', a strong sense of ‘oneness’ with their group. Oxford University researchers have now shed new light on the role that shared emotional experiences plays in this fusion between people’s personal and group identities. In their paper, published in the journal PLOS ONE, they describe three studies. The first two, based on online questionnaires with people living in Northern Ireland and Boston, USA, reveal that people who share extremely bad experiences together fuse more with their respective groups and a reflective process appears to link the shared traumatic events with the group’s identity. An experiment also shows how just thinking about a collectively traumatic event increases a sense of oneness with the group.

In the first study, 200 people of Irish and British descent in Northern Ireland who had lived during 'The Troubles' were asked about their negative experiences as a Unionist or Republican; how frequently they had suffered for being a Republican or Unionist; and how they rated their suffering. They then answered questions about how often they reflected on these shared negative experiences and, finally, how fused they felt with Republicanism or Unionism. The findings suggest that the level of an individual's suffering as a member of their group can be linked with their level of identity fusion, and this connection forms because of a period of reflection on their shared experiences.

Read more on the University website (opens new window)