A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus 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: Arie Kruglanski

Researcher Spotlight: Arie Kruglanski

August 26, 2013Mary Beck

With a lengthy list of cities he's lived in and an impressive resume to match, Arie Kruglanski's experiences give him a unique perspective. Born in Lodz, Poland, Kruglanski went to high school in Israel and served in the Israeli Armed Forces before moving to North America, where he would eventually earn his Ph.D. in psychology in 1968 from the University of California, Los Angeles. After spending 15 years as a professor at Tel Aviv University, Kruglanski finally settled at the University of Maryland and helped turn START into the research consortium it is today.

How did you become interested in studying psychology?
I moved to Canada to study architecture at the beginning, so it wasn't always clear to me that I would study psychology. But I didn't like architecture as much as I thought I would, and then I worked for an architect and I liked the work even less than the studies, so I switched to psychology. I had an interest in psychology based on the mysteries of psychoanalysis and its impact on films that I've seen. The mystery of the unconscious and interpretation of dreams really fascinated me.

I enrolled at psychology at the University of Toronto, and to my chagrin it was nothing like psychoanalysis. But then I got really interested in psychology as a science -- running experiments and doing quantitative analysis and generalizing animal research into human research. I switched to social psychology and the rest is history.researcher Arie Kruglanski

What sparked your interest in terrorism studies?
I have been and still am very much an experimental social psychologist. My laboratory is running experiments all the time. One thing that is somewhat bothersome to me is that we are operating in the confines of the ivory tower of academia, and we have very little connection to the outside world. I had an interest in that and I thought it would be nice if psychology could make more explicit and direct contributions to world affairs and societal issues.

I spent a year at the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and the director of the center, Neil Smelser, was the head of a panel for social sciences at the National Academy of Science. He invited me to participate as the only psychologist on the terrorism studies panel, so this was my first exposure to the study of terrorism.

I wanted to learn more, so I started offering courses on the psychology of terrorism so I could delve deeper into the literature. In 2004, Gary LaFree approached me with the possibility of joining forces with him in a competition for a Center of Excellence set up by the Department of Homeland Security, along with John Wilkenfeld, Clark McCauley and some others. I was happy to have the opportunity to compete, and even happier that we won.

Did growing up in Israel and serving in its armed forces affect your terrorism research?
It's difficult to tell. I had been growing up in an atmosphere of war and violence in Poland. Israel has always confronted all kinds of terrorism and dangers. But for many years, for example, I didn't have any interest in the study of aggression. I would probably venture to say that it had little impact  research for me was always an issue of intellectual curiosity in something, but I have also felt that psychology needs to give back to society more, and it was that opportunity from joining the National Academy of Science panel that created the background for me. I was always interested in studying motivation, and [studying] terrorist motivation was a big issue. So it was probably that more than my experiences as a child, although who knows?

How do you take what you know from psychology and apply it to your research on terrorism?
I'm interested in the fundamental psychology that drives actions and beliefs. It's my conclusion based on decades of research that motivation is very important in the formation of beliefs. We do not just form beliefs in a motivational vacuum, we have a motivation that those beliefs serve ? either for truth, or it's a motivation to arrive at a specific conclusion. This affects our interpersonal relations because other people are sources for information.

People who reinforce our beliefs are people we like, and people who contradict our beliefs we tend to dislike because they unravel our sense of reality, of what's true. I think this triad of motivation, beliefs and the social process is what accounts for belief formation and behavior. So this affects how everybody acts, regardless of culture. This also affects how terrorists act. The question is how to utilize that knowledge to understand what goes into effective rehabilitation and effective deradicalization, and how to translate it into policies and interventions.

How is terrorism research unique from other topics that you study in psychology?
It's very different. The methodology is very different. I'm used to running very tightly controlled experiments in the lab. If I want to study terrorist behavior empirically, I have to go out in the field, touch base with terrorists or ex-terrorists, secure their cooperation, administer questionnaires; I cannot manipulate their behavior. Sometimes I have to use different data, like event data, which is not human data. This research takes me all over the world. I'm now heading up a large MINERVA project, the sites of which are in Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Theoretically, it's a matter of applying these larger principles to a specific context. We know that motivation, ideology and the social context matter, but what is it about terrorist ideology that's different and why do some people become terrorists and other people do not? There's a challenge of mapping larger theoretical principles onto actual phenomenon. I very much enjoy these challenges.

What do you hope that your terrorism research will provide to policymakers?
I would like to be able to have input in discussions about how best to create counterradicalization programs in the community at large and how to best treat incarcerated terrorism suspects. That's in terms of the findings and insights from my research. I'm also training lots of young people working with me, and I'd like them to continue that kind of work. In general, I'd like to have psychology on the cusp of academia and policy to a greater extent. I'd like us to prove our value to policymakers and become indispensable.

What is your favorite part about teaching at the University of Maryland?
I feel very comfortable at this university. I'm a bit of a free spirit. I like to do things my own way, and the university allows me to do that. I love teaching students that are interested in the subject matter. I'm teaching grad students, and they're very smart and interested and dedicated.

What advice would you give students who are pursuing terrorism research?
Somerset Maugham was once asked, "What advice do you give to young writers?" He said, "Discourage them as much as possible. If they are any good, you will not succeed!" I believe that to a certain extent. I can offer what I can offer, but you get a lot of criticism in academia and the success rate of getting things published is very low, 15 percent, 10 percent. So you have to have a certain personality, a certain tenacity. I give what I can to students, but it's up to them.


Arie W. Kruglanski is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is recipient of the National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Award, the Senior Humboldt Award, the Donald Campbell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Social Psychology from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, The University of Maryland Regents Award for Scholarship and Creativity, and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and is recipient of the Regesz Chair at the University of Amsterdam. He was Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and is Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. He has served as editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and associate editor of the American Psychologist. His interests have been in the domains of human judgment and decision making, the motivation-cognition interface, group and intergroup processes, and the psychology of human goals. His work has been disseminated in more than 300 articles, chapters and books and has been continuously supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, Deutsche Forschungs Gemeineschaft, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. State Department, The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, The Templeton Foundation and the Ford Foundation. He has recently served as member of the National Academy of Science panels on counterterrorism and educational paradigms in homeland security. Kruglanski has been a founding co-PI of START (National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism), at the University of Maryland, and is now a PI on a 5-year MINERVA grant to study radicalization and deradicalization in the Middle East and in South and South East Asia.