Ángel Gómez, professor of Social Psychology at the Universidad a Distancia (UNED) and born in Madrid 53 years ago, is hardly known by almost anyone in Spain. However, its theories and tools have been used for years by anthropologists and psychologists from around the world to analyze the processes of violent radicalization, those that lead people to risk their lives and fight, for example, with the Islamic State (ISIS). in its acronym in English).
Until now, the largest grant he had obtained to develop his research was 70,000 euros, but a few days ago the European Research Council (ERC) awarded him a grant of 2.5 million euros to develop, expand and deepen his studies in the next five years. The objective is to try to find out how to prevent, detect and neutralize those processes that lead humans to extreme behaviors, understood as one of the great threats to Western societies. Gómez, whose methodology and results are pioneers on a world scale, in the free hours left by teaching and “without knowing English at first”, has collaborated and promoted dozens of studies with North American colleagues. With hardly any resources, and using the interest his theories aroused in the rest of the world, he has managed to get terrorists and anti-jihadist fighters to answer his questionnaires at home or in prisons in different countries.
For more than ten years, almost at his own risk, collaborating with researchers from other international universities and becoming a member of the Artis International scientific foundation – which develops psychosocial projects all over the world – he has sought, first, of valid and contrasted psychological measures (useful in different countries, societies and cultural levels), and then indicators that allow determining what it is that leads individuals to be willing to die for a group or for some beliefs.
His model on the “fusion of identity” – started in 2009 and published as a consolidated theory in Psychological Review in 2012 -, which measures the visceral connection of an individual with a group, was the germ of the objective that he now pursues. “Help create a prevention protocol, an evaluation of the risk of radicalization, and some guidelines for de-radicalization and / or disengagement”, he points out. “If we can understand the nature of extreme behavior, we can predict and neutralize it.”
It all started in 2004, when he sent emails to Bill Swann of the University of Texas at Austin, who had been studying personality psychology for 20 years. Both joined forces and ideas.
“We conclude that there is a higher level of personal connection with the group, which is the merger: merged people are willing to do things for the group that involve extreme behaviors, even to death.” The original way of measuring it is based on a series of pairs of circles, a small one representing the individual and a large one representing the group. They get closer to each other, until one of the options shows the small circle completely inside the large one. “Those who choose this last option consider themselves merged.”
They may feel attached to the group and be willing to die for it because they perceive strong family ties and because they share ideals, be they, for example, religious (sharia, Islamic law) or not (democracy, independence). Extreme behaviors are not linked to mental imbalances. And his theories can be applied to groups that have nothing to do with Islamism, from Latino gangs to hooligans.
Different studies in the five continents served to certify that the “fusion of identity” is a predictor of extreme behavior. The next was: which factors increase the effects of the merger and which cause it? The investigations managed to detect indicators that intensified the predisposition to extreme behavior such as “feeling that personal decisions benefit the group”, being considered “invulnerable”, “being in a stressful situation” or “sharing inalienable (or sacred) values with the other members of the group”.
And it was in an investigation on these “sacred” values with the American anthropologist Scott Atran – and thanks to fieldwork in the middle of the conflict with ISIS and interviews with combatants – that they concluded that it is not the perception of physical force (the access to material resources), but to spiritual (inner strength), which predicted the willingness to die in conflict. Also working with anthropologists from the University of Oxford, experts in rituals, Gómez discovered that something that caused the fusion was “having shared intense negative experiences with the members of the collective.”
In order to arrive at these findings, without having funds, Gómez managed to count, among others, even with the collaboration of the students of his daughter’s school in their studies, giving them exercises, questionnaires or creating video games that would place them in front of them. different situations and dilemmas.
Through emails, interviews, video calls, discreet trips, and scraping money from his own prizes, Gómez has been creating an international network of contacts, among which are prestigious researchers: “People who were studying extremism I went to the theory of identity fusion and they called me from Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia or Indonesia ”, he says. Thanks to these back and forth contacts, he has been able to take his questionnaires to jihadists and even the prisons where they were held. “They were investigating with the measures that I had developed!”, He recalls, “with jihadists in Indonesia or Iraq, former members of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the FARC in Colombia, but I didn’t have money to pay them and they asked me to they collected data from me, so I asked them for a budget and presented the project to the European Union ”.
“First we work with cardboard and paper, then with an iPad and an application off lineAnd now we want to do it on mobile, which is more practical, ”says Gómez. The data obtained by those first improvised pollsters in conflict zones were sent to a server as soon as they had an internet connection. Thus, even if their devices were lost or stolen – as happened once – the results of the surveys were saved. In tents next to the battle line, in their homes, behind bars, on the ground where they were prepared to die, hundreds of men and women have filled out their forms.
Finally, in 2019, “after hitting many blind spots and knocking uselessly on many doors,” he managed to find the support of the General Directorate of Penitentiary Institutions. Thanks to this support, Gómez was able to carry out an investigation into intergroup violence in Spanish prisons, where his team interviewed hundreds of inmates, including dozens of men and women imprisoned for jihadism. This direct contact was definitive to obtain the European scholarship. “This is the first time of many things,” he says. The results of this study, authorized by the General Secretariat of Penitentiary Institutions, under the Ministry of the Interior, will soon see the light.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.