The CIA has tapped the expertise of an APA science policy fellow to apply psychological research in ways that could help prevent terrorism--particularly as it pertains to principles of persuasion and compliance.

The fellow, social psychologist Linda Demaine, JD, PhD, is part of a team of CIA psychologists who consult with the agency to extend the findings of university-based researchers to intelligence-gathering and covert-operations applications.

Her work in the CIA is supported through an APA science policy fellowship, a one-year position in an executive branch office. Past science policy fellows have worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but Demaine is the first fellow to work in the CIA.

"Linda's work is a great example of how a science policy fellow can contribute to a more effective use of psychological research in the interests of national security," says Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, APA's director of science policy.

In her work as APA science policy fellow and in-house social psychologist for the CIA's behavioral science research staff, Demaine reviews research on persuasion and compliance techniques. She says she often finds cross-cultural research especially useful and notes that she frequently draws on the work of Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and Demaine's former academic adviser.

Persuasion strategies proven effective in the United States may not work well in other cultures, says Cialdini. For example, an advertisement for mouthwash that focuses on benefits for the individual by saying he or she will enjoy fresher breath will probably be more persuasive to an American than a Korean, he says. In Korea, advertisements do better when they appeal to the customer's other-orientation. In the case of mouthwash, an advertisement might note that the mouthwash-user's companions will appreciate fresher breath, says Cialdini.

Though Cialdini demurs on speculating about applications for the CIA, he says the findings show that when dealing with cultures that take a more collectivist than individualist perspective, it's often more effective to underscore benefits beyond the individual--to the social group or society.

"The value system of a culture impacts what works in terms of persuasion," he says.

Despite the importance of differences in culture, however, some persuasion techniques are likely to work well anywhere, says Demaine. Reciprocation, a social norm that obligates people to return favors, appears to be one such example, she says.

This powerful social norm seems to be valid not only across situations, but also across cultures, Demaine adds. This is why fund-raising letters sometimes enclose free mailing labels--people feel obligated to reciprocate with a donation.

Demaine, who earned her PhD in psychology at Arizona State University, says she never anticipated that she would be working in the intelligence community. However, the opportunity to bring her training in social psychology to intelligence issues was too good to pass up, she adds.

"I've always been interested in applying psychology to important social problems," she says. "Working in the CIA is a unique opportunity to do that."

Further Reading

Psychologists interested in science policy fellowships can apply online at the APA Grants and Scholarships Web site.