Uncommon Knowledge

Why do engineers become terrorists?

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
December 27, 2009

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Among those who carried out the 9/11 attacks, eight were engineers. Among Islamic extremists worldwide, engineers are significantly over-represented, relative to their prevalence in the general population or the population of those with a university education. Why? A recent analysis argues that the combination of an engineering “mindset” and the socioeconomic status of engineers in Islamic countries is to blame rather than any recruiting strategy. The engineering mindset tends to seek definitive solutions to problems, an approach that happens to dovetail with the extremists’ black-and-white worldview. At the same time, engineers in the Islamic world have had limited employment opportunities, especially relative to peers in the West. Many engineers in Islamic extremist groups attended university and were radicalized during the 1980s and 1990s, when oil prices and growth in the Middle East had receded. The one exception has been Saudi Arabia, where engineers have had relatively good job opportunities; only one of the 15 Saudis who carried out the 9/11 attacks was an engineer.

Gambetta, D. & Hertog, S., “Why Are There So Many Engineers among Islamic Radicals?” European Journal of Sociology (August 2009).

The ceiling that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Women may face a glass ceiling, but the women who manage to break through may be more formidable for it. That’s the conclusion of a recent study on women in politics. Congressional districts represented by women garner significantly more federal spending - on the order of $50 million annually. Congresswomen also sponsor more legislation - and receive more support for their own legislation - than men. Interestingly, the advantage disappears for widows who take the place of their husbands in office but is larger for women from more conservative districts - both of which suggest that overcoming a more demanding threshold selects for higher talent. The authors note that a similar minority advantage may be mitigated by minority-conscious gerrymandering, which can make it easier for minorities to get elected; however, this caveat doesn’t apply to statewide and national politicians (e.g., Barack Obama).

Anzia, S. & Berry, C., “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” Stanford University (August 2009).

Violence and the big game
A pair of economists has found a significant spike in police reports of at-home male-on-female domestic violence in the hours following an upset loss by the local NFL team. This effect is comparable to the effect of a hot day, but not as bad as a holiday. The effect was amplified after upset losses for games against longstanding rivals, when the home team was in contention for the playoffs, or when the home team made many mistakes. Upset losses also caused a significant spike in reported violence against “friends.” The authors conclude that a large fraction of domestic violence is simply the result of people losing their temper.

Card, D. & Dahl, G., “Family Violence and Football: The Effect of Unexpected Emotional Cues on Violent Behavior,” National Bureau of Economic Research (November 2009).

Maybe “Gourmet” needed a swimsuit issue
Even the least cynical among us know that self-serving justifications are part of everyday life. Whether you’re talking politics, work, or family, the self-serving justification is practically an art form. But it can also be a science. Researchers at Harvard Business School asked 23 men to evaluate two hypothetical sports magazines. The magazines were similar, except that one covered a greater number of sports, while the other had more feature articles. More importantly, one of the magazines was randomly assigned to have a swimsuit issue, while the other had a “Year’s Top 10 Athletes” issue. When the magazine with more articles also had a swimsuit issue, 92 percent of the men selected that magazine. However, when the other magazine had the swimsuit issue, only 46 percent selected the magazine with more articles. The men’s explanations shifted, along with their choices. When the magazine with more articles had swimsuits, 83 percent of the men said the number of articles was an important metric; when the magazine with fewer articles had the swimsuits, only 36 percent said the number of articles was important.

Chance, Z. & Norton, M., “ ‘I Read Playboy for the Articles’: Justifying and Rationalizing Questionable Preferences,” Harvard University (September 2009).

I like it because it’s there
I think, therefore I am. But also, according to psychologists: It is, therefore I think it should be. In other words, we tend to think that mere existence implies superiority. In experiments, when asked to consider relocating a company’s headquarters or changing college degree requirements, people preferred the (randomly assigned) status quo. Likewise, asking people in 2007 to imagine either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama winning the Democratic nomination made that particular outcome seem more likely and desirable. This phenomenon even extends to basic perceptions. People judged a (fictitious) diagram of a galaxy to be more aesthetically appealing in proportion to how ubiquitous they were told it was in the universe. And soda - whether it was sweet or bitter - was judged to taste better if people were told that it had been around as a product for 100 years compared to just 5 years.

Eidelman, S. et al., “The Existence Bias,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (November 2009).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at