Cover Story

Under the guidance of a new committee formed to respond to terrorist attacks, APA is assembling informationabout how psychological science can help in the struggle against terrorism.

The terrorist attacks and their repercussions cut across a broad swath of psychological science--from research on risk assessment, human factors in aviation and indoctrination into fanatical groups to psychological approaches to conflict resolution, cross-cultural differences and preventing hate crime.

"This event was a function of behavior--it wasn't a function of airplanes or buildings or technology," says Kurt Salzinger, PhD, APA's executive director for science. "Given that, we have to be concerned with how to prevent it through people's behavior."

Practitioners were the first psychologists to respond to the attacks, turning out en masse in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to provide support to rescue workers, bereaved families and others. But psychological science quickly became another important aspect of psychology's response.

When Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta announced on Sept. 16 the formation of two "Rapid Response Teams" to develop strategies for improving aviation security, APA's Public Policy Office immediately began consulting with human factors psychologists and other advisers to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We want to ensure that behavioral factors that can affect the performance of airport security personnel--such as visual perception and the ability to maintain vigilance, for example--are taken into consideration in the government's development of new security measures," explains Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, APA's director for science policy.

Psychological science soon jumped into the fray in additional ways. Within days of the tragedy, APA's Board of Directors formed a Subcommittee on Psychology's Response to Terrorism.

The subcommittee, working with APA's Science Directorate and Public Policy Office, began assembling a database of relevant psychological science to help government agencies and Congress combat terrorism and deal with the psychological causes and consequences of the attacks.

(In parallel with its efforts on the science front, the subcommittee has also collaborated with the Practice and Education directorates, working with schools to help young people cope with their reactions to the disaster, developing resources to help practitioners responding to the attacks manage their own stress and initiating plans to broaden the scope of APA's Public Education Campaign to address the crisis.)

APA has also worked to strengthen links with psychologists at the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, the Central Intelligence Agency and other government offices dealing with the terrorist threat, with the goal of learning more about those agencies' needs.

"The most urgent task is to get the message out that psychological science has a lot to contribute to the effort to combat terrorism," says Nova Southeastern University psychologist and APA Recording Secretary Ronald F. Levant, EdD, chair of the new board subcommittee.

For example, Levant says, "We need to address how a society can put forward a seemingly never-ending series of educated young men who are willing to inflict hideous damage on the United States and its people. Once you can understand that, you can begin to figure out ways to interrupt the process. There's a lot of poverty in the Arab world, so economics is probably a factor. But these weren't poor people who committed these acts. Psychology is uniquely situated to try to figure out what other factors are at play."

The tragedy was "a wake-up call," suggests APA's Associate Executive Director for Science Merry Bullock, PhD. "Although we have a lot of knowledge that can be useful to addressing terrorism, including its prevention and its aftermath, we don't have immediate answers," she says. "People want to know things like 'What is it in someone's development that makes them a terrorist?' Although behavioral and social sciences can provide some parts of the answer, a challenge will be to help put these pieces into a coherent answer."

Indeed, says Salzinger, although the average scientist in psychology may believe that he or she has nothing to contribute, "I suspect that some creative thought might suggest otherwise, and it behooves all of us to think in a more creative way about how our research might be useful--we know a great deal that is not being used."