A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Finding answers in social psychology


Finding answers in social psychology

Researcher Spotlight: Sophia Moskalenko

December 18, 2013Erin O'Brien

START researcher, Dr. Sophia Moskalenko, grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, at a time when the Soviet Union’s government taught children at a very young age to exemplify “unwavering Soviet loyalty” and “the collective effort.”

But after the Chernobyl disaster and the resulting government propaganda, Moskalenko began to question the intentions of her beloved Soviet Union: “Exactly why were we not allowed to question the party? What was so wrong with standing out?”

She turned to books for answers, but to her surprise found none explaining how people make decisions, why they experience emotions and what forms their beliefs. Mystified and intrigued, Moskalenko discovered a passion for social psychology.

Following her first semester at Kiev University, an unsatisfied Moskalenko moved to the United States., later earning a full scholarship to Bryn Mawr College. There, in a social psychology class taught by START researcher Clark McCauley, Moskalenko finally found the answers to her questions.

During graduate and doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, she stayed in touch with McCauley. Since 2005, she and McCauley have been working together on START projects researching how individuals are radicalized. In 2011, they co-authored a book, “Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us.”

“I like working with Clark. Our styles, both as researchers and writers, complement each other very well,” Moskalenko said. “Also, as a non-native speaker, I benefit from help with English. After all these years, I am still not always sure when there is a need for an ‘a’ or a ‘the’ or when no article is required at all.”

How did September 11 affect your scholarly endeavors?

As I was collecting data for my thesis, the United States was hit by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Suddenly I saw a change in the society that reminded me of the post-Soviet Ukraine. Sikhs were attacked for looking like Muslims; Muslims were attacked for having the same religion as the terrorists, American flags and patriotic rhetoric popped up everywhere. But now I had the knowledge and the tools to begin to understand this change. A part of my dissertation was an analysis of the impact of 9/11 on Americans’ feelings and beliefs about their country and other important groups.

How does your work with START allow you to pursue your research interests?

There are two projects at START that I am currently working on. One is a survey of American Muslims that will take place twice (the first wave already took place, second will be next year). We hope to gain insight into this population’s feelings about terrorism, the U.S. government’s anti-terrorism policy and radicalization. We can compare the results from year to year to see if there are any changes in the Muslim community’s feelings and attitudes. We can also compare our data with those of Pew and Gallup surveys conducted in the past, so we can see long-term tendencies and changes as well. There are a number of theories we are testing, and it is very exciting to be able to get “hard cold” data to answer some burning theoretical questions.

Another project has to do with lone-actor terrorism, a subject that Clark McCauley and I have been interested in, and published some papers on, in the past few years. We will produce a detailed psychohistory of Mommin Khawaja, a Canadian lone-actor terrorist who kept extensive journals where he documented his progression from a law-abiding Canadian to planning a terrorist attack.

Are there any topics that you have been eager to work on but haven’t quite had the chance to yet?

Yes. I am very interested in the phenomenon of martyrdom. Not just in the deconstructed, misleading interpretation that suicide terrorists use it, but in the broader concept which began with Christianity and helped shape the Western civilization. I would like to do empirical research on it, but so far funding for this kind of research has been elusive.

What are your interests outside of academia and research?

With three children under age 8 it is difficult to find time for many hobbies. I enjoy yoga and meditation. Every year we travel as a family, and my children-including the 11-month-old, have- many stamps in their passports. When possible, my husband and I catch a Broadway show or a performing arts show. I read a lot, and thank goodness for my TiVo, which lets me watch such shows as the Newsroom and the Good Wife in my limited free time.