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

Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Clark McCauley

Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Clark McCauley

October 21, 2013Laura Walker

In addition to being a START investigator, Dr. Clark McCauley is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. However, he wasn’t always set on a career in academia. After high school he planned to travel the world with the military, but he describes himself as soon joining the ranks of “Edgar Allen Poe and other illustrious West Point dropouts.”

He changed course to pursue an undergraduate degree in science and thrived in the field. McCauley went on to earn his doctorate in Social Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, developing a research interest in group dynamics, intergroup conflict, terrorism and the psychological foundations of ethnic conflict and genocide.

What attracted you to studying science?START Investigator Clark McCauley

I took up a National Institute of Health science scholarship program at Providence College in Providence, R.I. I was interested in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. But after comparing myself to my roommate, who was dynamite at physics – much better than I could hope to be -- I decided to pursue biology and chemistry instead. I was also drawn to biology because my mother had majored in it too.

After undergrad, I won a National Science Foundation Fellowship for graduate studies in psychology, thinking it would be a good place to apply my science background.

Who has been the most influential person during the course of your academic pursuits?

My friend Paul Rozin. He was a new assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department when I arrived there as a graduate student. He was a young, vibrant and creative person. Many years later I did research with him on the topic of ‘disgust,’ and it was interesting to see Paul’s thought process. He thinks about the things that we don’t know.

I learned from him how to get outside the usual boxes of the academic world and to think about real world phenomena that no one is paying attention to. That was a very formative experience for me. What we know is full of holes, and that’s the perspective that I got from Paul.

Is there a current hole in research that you’re interested in studying?

Since I’m interested in asymmetric conflict, there is a hole that I think deserves some interdisciplinary research: we don’t know how to theorize the connection between the war of ideas and the world of actual terrorist activities. Sympathizing with radical ideas is a whole different psychology than understanding how individuals and groups actually move to terrorist action. For example, let’s say 10 percent of U.S. Muslims believe suicide bombing in defense of Islam is justified.

If we intervened to cut that approval from 10 percent to 1 percent, what would be the effect on jihadi style attacks in the United States.? We have no theory to talk about this, so that’s a Paul Rozin hole. Another hole is the power of music for political mobilization.

How did you come to apply your psychology background to terrorism?

I had no real research interest in terrorism until I was invited to be a consultant to the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in New York City. HFG supports research aimed at helping understand and ameliorate human problems of aggression, dominance and violence. In those days, HFG started getting proposals from people interested in studying terrorism, and I reviewed these proposals from the point of view of a social psychologist.

I decided that I had heard enough about that. I had something to say myself, which was that it was not psychopathology that could help us understand terrorists, but rather some very extreme form of group dynamics could explain how normal people could do horrific things.

What is the most exciting experience you’ve had as a result of your research?

I almost talked to a terrorist once. He was a participant in an anti-Arab plot to blow up the mosque on Temple Mount. I was looking forward to interviewing him, but he decided not to talk to me because he was applying for law school in the United States.

He didn’t think further attention to his record was going to do him any good. But notice we’re talking about somebody who is basically a convicted terrorist! Here’s a sufficiently normal, everyday guy who thinks he’s going to law school, and for all I know, he did. He was a normal person who had one episode in his life, but why should that ruin his chance at law school? What could be more normal?

We don’t often think of terrorists as ‘normal,’ but one of your books analyzes how normal, unexceptional people become radicalized. Can you explain?

I co-wrote "Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us" with fellow START researcher Sophia Moskalenko. Each chapter is about a mechanism in terrorism and each begins with a story of a member of the People’s Will, the 19th century Russian anti-czarist group that marked the beginning of the modern era of terrorists. They’re very different from jihadist terrorists, so if you see the same mechanisms operating a continent, century, and ideology away, then there’s a plausible argument these mechanisms are quite general. There are 12 mechanisms that we identify. It’s all normal psychology; not one of them is abnormal.

But the same mechanisms that work on terrorists work on the rest of us. Usually, we find it a lot easier to see how the bad guys are getting more extreme, and we don’t recognize how we’ve changed. Right after 9/11 the whole U.S. population was radicalized, meaning we had new beliefs, feelings and behaviors to fight this threat. Radicalization arises in the course of an intergroup conflict.

How did you get involved with START?

I met Gary LaFree while we were both consultant reviewers for the HFG Foundation. While I was abroad, he emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in joining because he knew I had done terrorism-related research back in the 80’s. I was practically the only psychologist, non-psychiatrist working on the issue then, and I said yes. At the time he was putting the first proposal together for the Department of Homeland Security. I think my sole contribution was just a few pages, but the proposal went in, START was selected as a finalist, and I participated in the panel visits. It was pretty straight forward after that point. In recent years most of the empirical work I’ve done has been terrorism or radicalization related, and it’s all been made possible by support from START.

You’re also the founding editor of Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways to Terrorism and Genocide. What is your vision for the journal?

Originally, my friend Tony Marsella and I thought what’s missing is interdisciplinary work, but more than academic interdisciplinary work. We wanted to encourage the scientist/practitioner model, to develop a subculture of people and contributions that include people from government, academia and other backgrounds. That was our vision, which is not very different from START’s aim. We’ve been slowly working at it, and I think it’s time to try to forge better connections amongst the contributors.

In my mind, my work to understand terrorism in relation to radicalization is very much part and parcel with my interest in genocide. The reason the journal is named the way it is, with the subtitle Pathways to Genocide and Terrorism, is that these two problems are alike in that they are the extremes of violence. I’d like to try to use the same mechanizations of terrorism to explain the radicalization that happens when governments are radicalized to kill broadly and kill by identity. The two extremes are mirrors of one another in many ways, so the mechanisms should be too. That’s a book I haven’t gotten around to writing yet.

Speaking of books, what do you like to read for fun?

My grandfather was a lover of first-person stories. He had a whole library full of these books about interesting people who had actually seen incredible things and visited far off places. When I was young I used to read a lot of historical novels. But, when I finished reading his library one summer, I realized there’s much weirder and more interesting stuff going on in the real world than in any of the novels I ever read. So I pretty much stopped reading novels.