Social Science techniques are important to anti-terrorism programs

November 19, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The American Psychological Association (APA) and the Behavioral Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a report today on the potential culprits of terrorism and strategies derived from simulated scenarios that could prevent future acts of terrorism.

More than 70 academic scholars and researchers and personnel from justice, intelligence and law enforcement agencies met at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia for an invitational conference on "Countering Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory," last February. The conference was sponsored by the FBI Academy's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), the School of Arts and Sciences and the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania and the APA.

"Understanding terrorism and developing counter-terrorism strategies - for preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation - all involve human behavior," said psychologist Susan Brandon, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at APA. "Psychology is the science of behavior, and it has a wealth of knowledge that is relevant to all these aspects of terrorism. Just look at the attacks on September 11. These were not 'high-tech'. They were acts of aggression carried out by amateur pilots and well-organized teams - that is, they required motivation, learning, and social behavior. These are the domain of psychological science."

Scenarios depicted in the report describe what the FBI, other law enforcement and intelligence agencies could potentially face, when identifying groups of terrorists or those who harbor them and deterring support for terrorism by individuals, groups and communities. Questions facing the academic researchers and scholars in these scenarios were understanding stereotyping and ethnopolitical conflict, risk perception and communication, education regarding fundamentalism in all religious traditions, analysis of intelligence data and strategies to deal with bioterrorism.

Another challenge facing government is how to keep citizens informed without causing panic or counter-productive behavior. Here to, psychological insights can help guide government communications.

Three themes emerged as strategies to counter terrorism:

"Psychology and political science are disciplines that have made important contributions to understanding how various cognitive and emotional states influence the quality of judgments and the pattern of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty," said Dr. Ian S. Lustick, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science and Associate Director at Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict.

"The insights of these disciplines are crucial if policy-makers are to avoid counterproductive but natural propensities to exaggerate the dangers we face and to inflate expectations of attacks similar to those we have experienced," said Dr. Lustick. "But understanding how risk influences judgment is not only something that can improve the quality of policy-making, it can also help a frazzled public feel more at ease with a changed, but still fundamentally stable world."

"Subsequent to the horrific events of 9/11, the FBI's BSU and the APA received an outpouring of calls from psychologists who were volunteering their expertise in service to our country," said Stephen R. Band, Ph.D., Chief of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU). "These psychologists, motivated by patriotism, came forward to ask how they could help defeat terrorism and assist in winning the peace. By joining forces with the FBI, these behavioral and social scientists provided valuable insights and proved to be real heroes in our war against terrorism. The significant and unique expertise shared at this conference clearly assisted our Country's war against terrorists and most certainly set the stage for future collaboration."

Report: "Countering Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory," Anthony J. Pinizzotto, PhD, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Behavioral Science, Unit; Susan E. Brandon, PhD, American Psychological Association, Senior Scientist; Geoffrey K. Mumford, PhD, Amercian Psychological Association Director of Science Policy

(Copies of the report are available from the APA Public Affairs Office at

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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