Devoted Actors, Devoted Realism, and the Territorial Imperative

What is the other commonwealth that remains standing now that the mundane commonwealth, embodied in the Roman Empire, has fallen?

─ Saint Augustine, The City of God (De Civitae Dei), on what survived and thrived after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD

Peter Turchin’s Devoted Realism proposal is a laudable attempt to incorporate the sacred values and social cohesion of “devoted actors” (Atran, Axelrod & Davis, 2007) into a utility model that integrates the material and moral bases for political behavior. As Turchin rightly implies, the intractable character of many longstanding intergroup conflicts reside in the sacred value attached to territories in dispute−a site of heroic deeds, cultural achievements, continuity with ancestors and with future generations−and defies diplomatic solution (Ginges & Atran, 2011). It is only when territory becomes “Sacred Land” that it truly becomes indivisible and non-negotiable (Fearon, 1995). There are, however, two objections to this approach. First, as with Johnson and Toft (2013/2014), there is an assumption that the logic of territorial behavior is the main driver of political developments in history and cultural evolution, and the chief reason for enduring and intractable inter-group conflicts. Second, the utility calculus assumes that sacred values can vary continuously, or at least over graduated intervals.

On the first point: Grant that territory, like kinship, is a touchstone in the historical and cultural developments of our species. Nevertheless, as human societies have progressed from bands to chiefdoms, states and transnational movements, territory, like kinship, has often become subordinated to more abstract ideas and causes “to which no creature but man is subject,” as Thomas Hobbes put it in Leviathan. Indeed, the rise of universal religions were associated first, in Christianity, with explicit subordination of territorial ambitions to proselytization via charity and other social works, and, in Islam, with explicit submission (islam) of kin-based loyalties to the larger community (ummah) of mostly anonymous strangers. Of course, competition for territory and kin-based maneuvering has been recurrent and strong in the development of Christianity and Islam, for each ultimately has sought the ingathering and loyalty of all humanity, a concept that universal religion created. This is also true of the political history and cultural evolution of the great secular, salvational –isms that have dominated world politics since the French Revolution (liberalism, anarchism, communism, fascism, socialism, etc.). Nevertheless, issues that become the source of intractable conflicts needn’t involve kinship or territory in direct ways (e.g., rights to worship and intermarry freely), although they often do have psychological connection to our sense of kinship (e.g., pro-life vs. pro-choice, gay marriage) and territory (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program or Palestinian Right of Return as a sacred principle, Dehghani et al., 2010; Ginges et al., 2007). Often, the issues that keep longstanding disputes alive between states, although initially rooted in territorial conflict, later acquire stronger association with sacralized sentiments of (lack of) recognition and respect.

Even if the focus is on territorial claims and ambitions, historical precedents blur the picture. Take the Crimea, which Vladimir Putin claims “is sacred to us” (cited in Englund, 2014) and which very well may be for many Russians (Turchin, 2014). Yet, in the past, the same territory has been Scythian, Greek, Tatar, and Ukrainian. How people in a country decide what is just, and what is worth fighting for, cannot be merely a primacy effect based on past possession (Israel as ancient Judea) or enduring entrenchment (Palestine since the Romans). For example, Hawaii is the last territory incorporated into the USA, but many Americans across the country would probably consider it sacred. Generally, when countries start guiding their foreign policy based on historical claims it’s a red light for disaster. Thus, Poles were most happy to get back historic lands from Czechoslovakia when Germany annexed the Sudentenland in 1938, but most unhappy just one year later when Germany claimed it’s historic lands in Poland.

For modern states, the resource at stake may not be so much territory, as human minds. Take Putin’s appeals in favor of annexing the Crimea: this played out as much in the virtual reality of media and internet as on the ground. It might be interesting to compare game theory models based on territory, where causality is based on some kind of spatial grid, with models based on minds and hearts. In the “territory as a resource” case, the state of a cell might change based only on the state of the neighboring cells (with few exceptions, like airborne or seaborne assaults). Here, actors always lose territory gradually, and it is more or less clear what the current state is. A Hearts and Mind game would aim at capturing population rather than territory per se. In the “population as a resource” model, the causal connections will have different dimensionality based on social networks, media or other widespread sources of information: players might suddenly lose all resources were a message convincing enough.

On the second point: Although a graduated notion of “sacred value” can also be applied to “social goods” that needn’t involve territory (Bowles & Polania-Reyes, 2012), we find in our research that Devoted Actors follow a rule-bound logic (Berns, et al. 2012), motivated by sacred values embedded in fused social groups (Atran, 2010). Adherence to those values is inviolable and inalienable (intrinsic to “who I am,” and “who we are,” Atran & Ginges, 2012), and fusion with the primary reference group is complete and irrevocable (Swann et al., in press). In terms of impact on human decision-making, sacred values may be defined as values for which people refuse material trade-offs and resist normative social influence. Nothing in the proposed incorporation of sacred values into a utility function predicts the “backfire effect,” where states and individuals reject material tradeoffs and even seek out costly sacrifices in the face of sincere offers of compromise or negotiated settlement of disputes. Indeed, the backfire effect is sometimes associated with demonstrable willingness to rachet up commitment to defend sacred values against all odds and unto death, sacrificing the totality of self interests. Moreover, sacred values are often associated with radical skewing of functions for temporal or spatial discounting: psychological attachment to distant events and places linked with the sacred can be much more powerful than attachment to closer mundane events and places (Sheikh, Ginges & Atran, 2013).

Nevertheless, sacred values may themselves be ranked and prioritized in different ways, at different times. For example, Abraham Lincoln and many who he represented held as sacred values both preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery. At the beginning of the Civil War, he prioritized preservation of the Union over abolition. But towards the end of the war, he reversed priorities and prolonged the war for several costly and bloody months, claiming that preservation of the Union and its territory was meaningless unless the Union stood for sacred, moral principles that necessarily included abolition of slavery. Nothing in a proposed utility function accounts for the ranking and prioritization of sacred values relative to each other, but distinct from their relation to material trade-offs.

The goal of adequately describing, and ultimately explaining, the interaction of material interests and sacred values in motivating human behavior, whether for individuals or groups, is almost entirely absent from current theorizing. “Devoted Realism” is a step in the right direction, but perhaps still too tethered to the material side of things in general, and as with Johnson and Toft, particularly to the struggle over territory. The territorial imperative, however sacralized, did not alone or even primarily move us out of the caves, drive civilizations forward, create the concept of humanity, or produce globalization, along with most of the ensuing geopolitical ramifications.


Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Violent extremism, sacred values, and what it means to be human. London: Penguin.

Atran, S., Axelrod, R. & Davis, R. (2007). Sacred barriers to conflict resolution. Science, 317, 1039-1040.

Atran, S. & Ginges, J. (2012). Religious and sacred imperatives in human conflict. Science, 366, 855-857.

Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C.M., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J. & Atran S. (2012). The price of your soul: Neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal SocietyB, 367, 754-762.

Bowles, S. & Polania-Reyes, S. (2012). Economic incentives and social preferences: Substitutes or complements? Journal of Economic Literature, 50, 368-425.

Dehghani, M., Atran, S. Iliev, Sachdeva, R., Ginges J. & Medin, D. (2010). Sacred values and conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Judgment and Decision Making, 5, 540-546.

Englund, W. (2014). Kremlin says Crimea is now officially part of Russia after signing, Putin speech. Washington Post, May 18.

Fearon, J. (1995). Rationalist explanations for war. International Organization, 49, 379-414.

Ginges, J. & Atran, S. (2011). War as a moral imperative (not practical politics by other means). Proceedings of the Royal SocietyB, 27, 2930-2938.

Ginges, J., Atran, S., Medin, D. & Shikaki, K. (2007). Sacred bounds on the rational resolution of violent political conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA,104, 7357-7360.

Johnson, D. & Toft, M. (2013/2014, Winter). Grounds for war: The evolution of territorial conflict. InternationalSecurity, 38, 7-38.

Sheikh, H, Ginges, J. & Atran, S. (2013) Sacred values in intergroup conflict: Resistance to social influence, temporal discounting, and exit strategies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1299, 11-24.

Swann, W., Gomez, A., Buhrmester, M., Lopez-Rodriguez, L., Jiménez, J. & Vazquez, A. (in press). What makes a group worth dying for? Identity fusion fosters perception of familial ties, promoting self-sacrifice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Turchin, P. (2014). Russia’s sacred land. Aeon, http://aeon.co/magazine/living-together/why-national-honour-trumps-rationality/


Published On: May 8, 2014

Scott Atran

Scott Atran

Scott Atran is an anthropologist and psychologist who studies how cognitive and biological dispositions, and cultural preferences and values, shape social structures and political systems and drive group conflict. He is co-founder of Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford; Research Professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy; Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Centre; Emeritus Director of Research at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique; and advisor to the UN Security Council on counterterrorism and issues of Youth, Peace, and Security. His work and life have been spotlighted on television, radio, internet blogs and podcasts, and in the popular and scientific press, including feature and cover stories of the New York Times MagazineThe Chronicle of Higher EducationNature and Science. He is the author of Talking to the Enemy Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists (2010) published by HarperCollins.

Rumen Iliev

Rumen Iliev

Rumen Iliev is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ford School of Public Policy and an ARTIS fellow. His main line of work has been on the overlap between cognition, morality and culture. He has conducted research on the cognitive properties of sacred values, on the role of perception of causality in moral reasoning, and on context effects in moral choice. A more recent interest of his is automated text analysis and using web data as a tool for understanding cultural dynamics and historical changes of moral values. Currently he is collaborating with Robert Axelrod on developing case-based methods for statistical analysis. Rumen obtained an MA degree in Psychology from Sofia University, and a PhD degree in Cognitive Psychology from Northwestern University.

Jeremy Ginges

Jeremy Ginges

My research explores the psychological dimension of cultural and political conflicts. I study (a) how people manage to cooperate with members of different ethnic, national or religious groups and (b) why cooperation breaks down into violent conflict. A secondary research interest concerns the psycho-social consequences of exposure to political violence.


  • Martin Hewson says:

    A couple of brief points:

    1. The term “territorial imperative” is misleading. It makes it sound like people who are attachment to a territory are subject to a command. Better to call it a “territorial desire” or a “territorial preference.”

    2. “The territorial imperative, however sacralized, did not alone or even primarily move us out of the caves, drive civilizations forward, create the concept of humanity, or produce globalization, along with most of the ensuing geopolitical ramifications.”

    This implication here is that territoriality is somehow backward-looking, retrograde, opposed to good forward-looking things like civilizations, humanity and globalization.

  • dashui says:

    Can Puerto Rico please become sacred to some other country?

  • Scott Atran says:

    Fine with territorial preference, and really no need to feel territory slighted. And in regard to the final point, sacralization can be for ill or good.Territory alone did not give our species that power of absurdity that drives human collectivities to their greatest exertions. Of course, the transcendent values that motivate devoted actors are intricately tethered to material calculations and interests in order for groups of people to survive and thrive; and scientific understanding of that tethering must be a goal of any explanatory or descriptively adequate account of human social behavior and cultural evolution. But if our befuddlement over the apparent irrationality of extreme political behaviors for abstract causes is any indication, then more effort is needed to grasp the nature and power of devotion to sacred values, and how groups fuse and mobilize to protect them.

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