Fighting Terror With Science

A new occasional series profiling big psychology grants begins with a look at the $12 million National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, which will unite behavioral researchers of various disciplines.

The National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism

Project Title: Homeland Security Centers of Excellence
Where: University of Maryland College Park
Granted by: Homeland Security Department
Grant Size: $12 million
Director: Gary LaFree
Dates of Grant: Three years

Key Leaders/area of study:
Arie W. Kruglanski — terrorist group formation and recruitment.
Clark McCauley — the dynamics and persistence of terrorist groups.
Kathleen J. Tierney — societal dimensions of the terrorist threat, including risk perception, preparedness, and how the public will likely respond.

How is it that a young man can strap explosives to his body with all the solemnity of a profound religious ritual, walk into a crowded restaurant, and blow up as many innocents as he can — along with himself? How is it that such behavior is not an aberration, that perhaps thousands of people are chomping at the bit for their opportunity commit mass murder to further a cause? How is it that movements dedicated to such horrors have vast popular followings in many areas of the world?

Researchers hope to begin answering just those sorts of questions thanks to the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism, or START, a social and behavioral research center designed to bring together academics from disparate backgrounds to examine behaviors and movements whose driving forces are not yet well understood, despite decades of blood-spattered experience.

“Members of the news media have picked up on the notion that these types of movements are driven largely by things like personal poverty or political oppression, but those factors are not necessarily critical,” said Gary LaFree, director of the START facility. LaFree, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland at College Park, points out that many people associated with such movements are actually children of privilege, whose wealth insulates them from adversity. “Osama bin Laden is a very good example,” said LaFree, referring to al Qaeda leader who was given vast sums of money by his politically powerful family.

The START center, which will open this spring, is a consortium of institutions of higher learning but is headquartered at the University of Maryland, with five major partners — the University of Colorado, the University of Pennsylvania, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the University of South Carolina, and the University of California, Los Angeles — and nearly a dozen additional institutions around the world. Funded by a $12 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, START is one of seven centers that will be set up by the DHS across the country to research terrorist-related issues. But START is the only center focused on the behavioral and social sciences. “This is going to be like the Manhattan Project for the social sciences,” said LaFree.

Critical to that effort will be an emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. START is designed to bring together experts in fields such as political science, anthropology, economics, and sociology to break down the barriers that have stunted research.

One of START’s first hires was APS Fellow and Charter Member Arie W. Kruglanski, University of Maryland.*

Kruglanski’s new role will allow him to embrace what first attracted him to the discipline. “When I was young, I grew fascinated by what motivates people, especially when it’s not readily accessible,” he said. “I was interested in the work of Freud and the impact he had on culture.”

But Kruglanski wound up getting his bachelor’s in psychology at the University of Toronto in Canada, which at the time was heavily neo-behavioristic and relied a great deal on animal research. “I found myself in a very hard-nosed department where Freud was anathema,” he said.

In later years, Kruglanski moved away from the once-popular focus on animal research, in part because he was badly bitten by a lab rat he was trying to condition. “Whatever else humans do to experimenters, they rarely bite them,” he joked.

Kruglanski will lead a team of researchers from other universities and laboratories around the world that will study the formation of terrorist groups. “In a way, yes, I’m coming back full circle,” he acknowledged. “While I’ve been very interested throughout my career in motivation — especially, over the past 5 years, in unconscious motivation — it’s true that I was certainly rooted in those animal studies for some time. This brings me back even more to my beginnings, if you will. But that early training was critical for me. It left me enchanted by the rigor of science,” he said.

While Freud explored human motivation in a manner that was highly subjective, Kruglanski can use modern methods to tease out the secrets of the psyche and get results that are reproducible by other researchers. “Now I study unconscious motivations with the rigors of the scientific method, and I want to apply that sort of rigor to the study of terrorism.”

Over the past 15 years or so, researchers have gained a broader understanding of how unconscious motivations can profoundly influence behavior. In one series of experiments, subjects sit before a computer while specific words flash by on the screen. The words disappear too quickly for the subject to be aware of them consciously, but the subjects clearly are aware of them on some level, for the words can have a profound behavioral effect. For example, some words can instill subjects with the desire to work harder at a subsequent test, or to be more cooperative. “We can measure this,” said Kruglanski. “There’s an accumulated body of evidence demonstrating undeniably that you can evoke a goal without the individual being aware that the goal has been activated.”

Kruglanski likes to call this a “new look in motivation.” For example, he said, “If your larger goal is to diet, and you’ve been primed with words in support of that goal and you’re presented with a cookie, we find evidence that this temptation can be overcome by this programming. This sort of work opens up all kinds of avenues to intervention, and of course has been picked up by consumer psychology.”

At the START center, Kruglanski said, members of the consortium will naturally be interested in the psychological aspects of both individual and group motivations related to terrorism.

Wyn Jennings, a program director with the National Science Foundation who has been detailed to work with the DHS, says the work of the researchers at the new center could prove extremely important. “By understanding the behavioral characteristics of terrorists, and the group dynamics of terrorism, we could expose vulnerabilities that we very well may be able to exploit,” Jennings said. “For example, can we in some way intervene in the process of recruitment? At the moment, we don’t know, in part because we don’t have a clear understanding of that process.”

Despite the profound influence that terrorism can have over individuals, cultures, and nations, it remains a phenomenon that is not well understood by social scientists — in no small measure because studying terrorist groups from the inside is all but impossible. While terrorism as a tool of groups dates back centuries, if not millennia, the recent academic interest in terrorism, according to Kruglanski, began about three decades ago. That was when groups like the Red Army Faction rose up in Germany, with similar groups employing similar methods in other parts of Europe, South America, and Japan.

Up until that time, when terrorism was studied at all, according to Kruglanski, it was typically viewed through the lens of criminal behavior, because terrorists were usually classified as simple deviants — neurotic types whose psychic wounds were in part caused by things like a broken home.

But while criminals are most commonly motivated by things like greed, groups who employ terroristic methods are not, said Clark McCauley, professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and director of Solomon Asch Center for the study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. McCauley, who like Kruglanski will head up a START team, offered a blunt assessment: “We had 20 odd years of psychiatrists trying to understand this as deviance, but by the ’90s we were confident that was wrong. People just like you and me — that’s who’s capable of terrorism.”

The third team leader for START, Kathleen J. Tierney, professor of sociology and director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, pointed out that terrorism is not a recent or isolated phenomenon. “Groups have used terrorism as a tactic for centuries if not millennia. It’s a ubiquitous phenomenon.”

Most researchers today view terrorism as something that any group is capable of, depending on circumstances. “There is a logic to this, and sometimes that logic is clearly flawed, but sometimes it’s not,” Kruglanski said.

Sometimes groups use terrorism in ways that aren’t always obvious to outsiders, LaFree said. For example, the attacks on the World Trade Center were, in a sense, marketing devices. “A lot of terrorist strikes have more to do with communicating to potential followers than with direct damage to a perceived enemy,” he said. They are designed to prop up support for the group among the general population, and they are only the most obvious part of the group’s activities. Groups that use terrorism need a very large number of supporters who do not directly engage in terrorist acts; like an iceberg, most of the support for the group cannot be seen, according to LaFree, and support can disappear virtually overnight if the general population feels that the group’s terrorist activities are unjustified or improperly applied. Groups like the Irish Republican Army, for example, have seen a dramatic decrease in support after some attacks. Case in point was the attack on Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, who died in an boat explosion, perpetrated by the IRA, on August 29, 1979. The murder of the 79-year-old war hero sparked a wave of revulsion among citizens, and the group saw its popularity wane thereafter.

Kruglanski will direct a group that focuses on terrorist group formation and recruitment; McCauley’s group will research the dynamics and persistence of terrorist groups; and Tierney’s group will focus on societal dimensions of the terrorist threat, including risk perception, preparedness, and how the public will likely respond. All three team leaders agree that what makes the START center unique is its interdisciplinary nature.

Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, “There are very good people who have done very good research within their own discipline on this subject,” McCauley said. “People who can tell you about small-group dynamics — I’m one of those people — people who can talk about cultural issues, [and] one or two people who have brought social movement theory to bear. What’s lacking is bringing all this research together. And in my mind, if we fail to do that, if we keep doing research as we’ve done it in the past without any kind of interdisciplinary aspect, then this center will be a failure.”

START expects to have at least 35 projects in place around the world researching critical issues related to terrorism. LaFree said the logistics of this undertaking are complex. For example, captured training manuals developed by groups that embrace terrorism advise followers to look to prisons as training grounds. “So one of our projects will be interviewing inmates, because prisons are thought to be sources of recruitment, which we don’t know enough about,” LaFree said. “But as you know, universities have stringent human subject requirements, particular for human subjects like kids or prisoners. So some issues we’ve got to deal with are really doozies.”

Kruglanski agreed, and said that the new research will help provide insight into the mind of a terrorist, helping researchers understand what most people currently find incomprehensible. He offered a hint — a profile that could conceivably speak to many of us and that reinforces the idea that a suicide bomber really could be like you or me.

“One idea is that engaging in terrorism is designed to offer meaning to a life that seems devoid of meaning,” he explained. “Engaging in terrorism can be a matter of grievance — something unfair has befallen you — or oftentimes, it’s glory. Many people who engage in terrorist acts, like the Weathermen organization in the United States, feel they are doing something extremely important that lends significance to their existence. In a word, they simply feel compelled to do these things and have a very grandiose vision of themselves, whether it’s liberating their own nation or obliterating those who corrupt the world.”

“Obviously, I look at this from the perspective of psychology,” Kruglanski said. “But we’ll have people from different disciplines looking at different aspects of the elephant: demographers, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, criminologists. They’ll each see something different. We’ll all come together and come to fully understand this.”

* Hear Kruglanski and co-presenter John T. Jost at their Invited Address, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Saturday, May 28, 2005 at the APS 17th Annual Convention. For more information, visit www.psychologicalscience.org/convention.

Observer Vol.18, No.5 May, 2005

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