Science Directions

Are we all Salman Rushdie now? Condemned to death, warned that our days are numbered? Why are Americans so hated that people will sacrifice their own lives to kill us? Does the science of psychology have any models to explain terrorists' behavior or our behavior when we react to them?

What research may tell us

R.E. Ulrich and N.H. Azrin looked at the effect of shocking pairs of animals in cages. They found that while rats work hard and efficiently to escape shocks and learn to avoid them when shocked alone, they react differently when placed together--they attack one another. That response might well have evolved over time because of the great likelihood that pain felt by one animal is likely to be the product of another's behavior.

Does that experiment provide us with a model to explain why terrorists attacked innocent citizens of the United States, and why some of our citizens attack people they claim look Arabic?

Some 60 years ago, W.K. Estes and B.F. Skinner performed an experiment on what they called anxiety. They trained a rat to press a bar, using pellets of food as reinforcers. After the rat's behavior stabilized, they sounded a warning signal, which was followed, independent of the rat's behavior, by an electric shock to the rat's feet. After a few pairings of these stimuli, the rat virtually stopped responding during the interval between warning and shock despite the fact that bar-pressing would have continued to provide the hungry rat with food.

I wondered, did we receive the warning signal when the terrorists bombed the World Trade Center the first time, when they destroyed the American embassies and when they attacked the Cole, eventually followed by the horrendous destruction of the World Trade Center? Now that the destruction has taken place, are we exposed to another warning signal? Is that a model to explain the difficulty that many of us are experiencing in getting back to work?

What model does psychology offer to explain how a man or a group of men fly a plane into a building to destroy it and to kill thousands of people they do not know while taking their own lives? Is their behavior slowly shaped to follow orders over a period of years so that the ultimate response is but a final generalization of their conditioning? Should we look for explanations in models of social obedience, in models of moral development or in models of personality type?

What model do we have to explain the terrorists' hate? Did they learn to hate by instruction from their teachers and their textbooks, slowly as they might have learned to become nuclear physicists or experimental psychologists? Or is the appropriate model for their hate the elicitation of emotion caused by the pain when one's brother is killed by someone associated with our country? Is their behavior to be explained simply by elicitation of a response as to a shock? Is the only difference between human anger and animal attack a matter of how long the vengeful response is delayed?

Let science have a voice

I bring up these basic experiments because the questions they raise and the implications they suggest are relevant to today's events. As we scrambled trying to find a way of helping the victims, I found a number of my scientist colleagues ruefully admitting that their work in psychology could not be useful in this crisis. I disagree. I believe we can all use our current knowledge and prospective research to help in this situation.

To my colleagues in psycholinguistics, I say you can use your research on meaning to lay bare the messages that our enemies send us or others. To my colleagues in cultural psychology, I say you can instruct us in how to understand the meaning of what people in other cultures do and how we can keep from offending them. Social psychologists can instruct us on how to understand group interaction and attitude formation. Developmental psychologists can instruct us on how attitudes are molded over time and do the research on how effective the teaching now produced in countries inimical to the United States will be in producing terrorists of the future. Those in applied experimental psychology can design the behavioral requirements to make each plane responsive only to legitimate pilots.

I don't know how many of these ideas are practical, or how many more such ideas scientist psychologists can produce, but it is definitely worthwhile for us to make the effort at this time.

And so I end this first of my columns in the Monitor by appealing to all scientist psychologists to think about how your research can help in this situation; if you already know how your research is relevant, please let us know. The Science Directorate, guided by the Board of Directors, is compiling a list of experts that we will make available to decision makers and program developers responsible for shaping our government's response. Write to me or e-mail me to tell us of your research expertise, ideas and references--we will let science be a voice that can make a difference.