AI simulates reasons behind human religious conflict

Credit: Ryan Sunada-Wong/ Credit: Ryan Sunada-Wong/

Are people naturally violent? Can religious factors create anxiety between groups that leads to violence?

These are the questions that a new study in The Journal for Artificial Societies and Social Simulation sought to answer. A team of researchers from the University of Oxford, Boston University, and the University of Agder in Norway combined computer modeling and cognitive psychology to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) that emulated human religious behaviors in order to understand the conditions, triggers, and patterns of religious violence.

For the first time, multi-agent AI is being used to create psychologically realistic computer models in research. Justin E. Lane, a member of the research team, noted the computational advancement this study represents over previous applications of AI. “99 [percent] of the general public are most familiar with AI that uses machine learning to automate human tasks like — classifying something, such as tweets to be positive or negative etc., but our study uses something called multi-agent AI to create a psychologically realistic model of a human, for example — how do they think, and particularly how do we identify with groups? Why would someone identify as Christian, Jewish or Muslim etc. Essentially, how do our personal beliefs align with how a group defines itself?”

Applying theoretical cognitive psychology literature allowed the team to translate the workings of the human mind into a computer program, specifically how humans process information and compare it to their personal experiences. The simulated environment contained millions of AI-based human agents with differing characteristics like age and ethnicity. While everyday tasks such as working and studying were not emulated, the simulation included the possibility of environmental hazards like disasters and disease, as well as groups of individuals interacting with each other.

The study reveals that humans are naturally peaceful, but can be willing to engage in or endorse violence when others go against core beliefs defining their identity. Long periods of mutually escalating tensions between social groups occur due to outlier members, who deny a group’s core beliefs or values and overwhelm other individuals. In general, anxiety and agitation arises when people feel that their belief systems are challenged. However, the simulation found that anxiety led to violence in just 20 percent of scenarios triggered by individuals contradicting group identity, leaving the cause of other violent engagements a mystery.

Lane said, “Ultimately, to use AI to study religion or culture, we have to look at modeling human psychology because our psychology is the foundation for religion and culture, so the root causes of things like religious violence rest in how our minds process the information that our world presents it.”