Why Are Disproportionate Numbers of Islamic Extremists Engineers?

Is it the personality type of engineering students or the nature of their educations? (Photo: EDIWeekly)

Is it the personality type of engineering students or the nature of their educations? (Photo: EDIWeekly)

In a wide-ranging article (highly recommended) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett address a new book on Islamic extremists by social scientists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (Princeton University Press). Berrett writes:

Do engineering programs select a certain kind of person, one who arrives on campus already predisposed toward acts of terror? Does something in these programs worsen some students’ tendency toward extremism? Or is the relationship between terrorism and engineering simply an intriguing correlation with no deeper meaning?

Regarding personality types, Berrett explains that authors Gambetta and Hertog

… focused on three traits. One is the need for cognitive closure, or a preference for order and distaste for ambiguity. Scholars … have documented high levels of this trait among politically conservative voters. These groups, Gambetta and Hertog write, also have two other tendencies: They accept prevailing hierarchies and, when confronted with the unfamiliar, they experience high levels of disgust.

I would just add that disgust travels in lockstep with judgmentalism, arrogance, and intolerance. Berret continues: “The authors observe that these traits are also central to radical Islamist ideology. Did engineers have them, too?”

Gambetta and Hertog chose proxy measures for these traits among Western European, male college graduates polled by the European Social Survey. The need for closure and embrace of hierarchy, for example, were correlated with survey questions that elicited opinions on social norms, immigrants, income inequality, and the likeliness of a terrorist attack. Disgust was indexed to how likely respondents were to disagree that “gays are free to live as they wish.”

Economics graduates often topped the list, the authors found, but engineering students most consistently scored higher across all of the measures.

Meanwhile, writes Berrett, leftist groups, “like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, in 1970s Germany, and Italy’s Red Brigades included few engineers but attracted plenty of social-science and humanities majors.” Continuing…

[Arie] Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park, has studied how the need for closure can figure into violent extremism. The term he uses is “certainty-seeking.” In basic human terms, he says, people often seek certainty to help them regain a sense of significance, the feeling that they matter.

As for the conventional wisdom that poverty and ignorance are wellsprings of terrorism, “little evidence supports that notion, says [terrorism expert] Jessica Stern. … The new book, she says, amplifies [a previous finding] that education often helps reduce terrorism in nations with sound institutions and dynamic economies, but that when the opposite conditions apply, education may fuel violent extremism.

But, without apparently realizing it, Berrett contradicts this.

When people’s hopes for individual and social advancement are raised and then dashed, a dynamic called relative deprivation can occur. People who experience relative deprivation don’t need to be objectively disadvantaged; they must simply feel they’ve been denied their due.

The theory makes intuitive sense for engineers in developing countries, where the programs’ graduates enjoy high social status. Instead of finding lucrative careers, however, they often encounter limited job prospects in sclerotic economies. The gap between expectations and opportunities can come to feel galling, perhaps even humiliating. Hell hath no fury like a frustrated elite.

Just  as with everything else, it’s still the economy, stupid. Poverty or perceived poverty.