Social sciences

  • Decision makingSocial circles explain why members of Congress vote the way they do

    The standard model of voting behavior basically assumes there is only one factor that matters: where a legislator lives on the liberal-conservative axis. That position, derived from their roll call votes, serves as an ideological marker that presumably summarizes the various forces that can influence the legislators’ votes, including personal preferences, party preferences, and constituent opinion. Researchers developed a new model called “social identity voting” based on social identity theory, which says our identity is partially created and reinforced by the various circles within which we move and the various ideologies with which we identify. In other words, it is not just friends and friends of friends, but also potentially something more subtle — you can identify with a movement without necessarily being part of an explicit “social circle.” The researchers conclude that U.S. Congress members’ social circles are more important in how they vote than their liberal or conservative beliefs or constituents’ opinions.

  • Decision making“Echo chambers” fuel climate change debate: Study

    A new study demonstrates that the highly contentious debate on climate change is fueled in part by how information flows throughout policy networks. The researchers found that “echo chambers” — social network structures in which individuals with the same viewpoint share information with each other — play a significant role in climate policy communication. The researchers point out that the debate on climate change is not indicative of inconclusive science. Rather, the debate is illustrative of how echo chambers influence information flows in policy networks. “Our research underscores how important it is for people on both sides of the climate debate to be careful about where they get their information. If their sources are limited to those that repeat and amplify a single perspective, they can’t be certain about the reliability or objectivity of their information,” says one of the authors.

  • TerrorismTerrorists’ personality traits indistinguishable from traits of the general population: Experts

    Social scientists and psychologists have not found a personality trait that visibly marks a potential for violent extremism, making it difficult to identify members of a group who may take up arms in support of a common cause. “As of now, there is no specific terrorist profile,” said one expert, who studies violent radicalization. “They come in all shapes and sizes.”Another experts writes that“There are no psychological characteristics or psychopathology that separate terrorists from the general population.”

  • EuropeMarine Le Pen: The rhetoric behind extremist politician's mainstream success

    Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the French National Front in 1972 to unite under the same political banner several fringe groups – royalists, conservative Catholics, those nostalgic for the Vichy régime and the colonial Empire — and offer a political home to voters who opposed immigration to France from France’s former colonies in Africa and who wanted to take France out of the European Union. Le Pen, however, was an obstacle to the growth of FN. He is a crude anti-Semite and Holocaust denier, and a vulgar racist. He refuses to support the French national soccer team because some of its players are black or Muslim, and hence not “real” French. He criticized the French government’s participation in the efforts to contain Ebola in West Africa because, he argued, if the Ebola virus were allowed to spread freely, it would have “solved” the global “population explosion” (that is, having too many black-skinned people) and, by extension, France’s – and Europe’s — “immigration problem.” His daughter, Marine Le Pen, became the leader of FN in 2011 and set out to rebrand the FN in order to make it acceptable to more centrist voters. Recent election results show that she has been successful. A textual analysis of French political speeches reveals how Marine Le Pen has made extremism palatable in a land of republican values.

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  • TerrorismLack of evidence-based terrorism research hobbles counterterrorism strategies

    The Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland estimates that groups connected with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State committed almost 200 attacks per year between 2007 and 2010. That number has increased to about 600 attacks in 2013. As terrorism becomes more prevalent, the study of terrorism has also increased, which, in theory, should lead to more effective antiterrorism policies, and thus to less terrorism. The opposite is happening, however, and this could be partly due to the sort of studies which are being conducted. The problem: few of these studies are rooted in empirical analysis, and there is an “almost complete absence of evaluation research” concerning anti-terrorism strategies, in the words of a review of such studies.

  • Islamist fundmentalismIslamic fundamentalism is not a marginal phenomenon in Europe

    A comprehensive new comparative study of religious dispositions among European Muslims and Christians finds that between 40 percent and 45 percent of European Muslims have fundamentalist religious ideas. The percentage goes down among the young and among individuals with higher social and economic status. A PEW Research Center study, using the same criteria for fundamentalism, found that Islamic fundamentalists make up slightly more than 30 percent of U.S. Muslims. Only 4 percent of European Christians are fundamentalists. Fundamentalist beliefs among both Muslims and Christians are closely associated with hostility toward other out-groups, including homosexuals, Jews, and Westerners (in the case of Muslims) or Muslims (in the case of Christians) – but violence does not necessarily form part of a fundamentalist ideology (thus, the Jewish Neturei Karta of the Christian Amish are at the same time among the most fundamentalist religiously and the most violence-averse). The research quotes other studies which found that between 10 percent and 15 percent of European Muslims are prepared to use violence to defend their faith, but that the increase in the propensity for violence among Muslim fundamentalists is a relatively recent phenomenon — of the last two or three decades.

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  • CrimeMany violent criminals driven by a desire to do the right thing: Researchers

    To the extent that their heinous behavior can be understood, murders, wife beaters, gang bangers, and other violent criminals are acting out of a breakdown of morals, right? Not so fast, say two social scientists say. In a new book, they ascribe most acts of violence to a truly surprising impulse: the desire to do the right thing. “When someone does something to hurt themselves or other people, or to kill somebody, they usually do so because they think they have to,” explained one of the researchers. “They think they should do it, that it’s the right thing to do, that they ought to do it and that it’s morally necessary.”

  • Mental illness & terrorismAbout 40 percent of lone-wolf terrorists are driven by mental illness, not ideology: Researchers

    Researchers have long studied the relationship between mental illness and terrorism, particularly lone-wolf terrorists. One study examined ninety-eight lone wolf attackers in the United States, and found that 40 percent of them had identifiable mental health problems, compared with 1.5 percent of the general population.Another study reviewed 119 lone wolf attackers and a similar number of members of violent extremist groups in the United States and Europe, and found that nearly 32 percent of lone wolves had been diagnosed with a mental illness, while only 3.4 percent of terrorist group members were mentally ill.The researchers say that there is a significant link between mental problems and the making of a lone-wolf terrorist, leading to cautious hope that future attacks may be avoided. “It’s never an either-or in terms of ideology versus mental illness,” one researcher said. “It’s a dangerous cocktail.”

  • Mental illness & terrorismCould the Sydney siege have been predicted and prevented?

    By Carolyn Semmler

    It’s the question everyone is asking — could the Sydney siege have been predicted and therefore prevented based on the past behavior of gunman Man Haron Monis. Monis’s troubled history was well known to media and the police, but can we predict if and when such a person is likely to commit any further crimes? Further, we need to be very careful about stereotyping the mentally ill as potentially “dangerous.” It is simply not the case that all people with serious mental illnesses are prone to violence. There are very specific factors that govern the complex relationship between mental illness and violence. We need to understand and prevent people from experiencing them.

  • RadicalizationRadicalization and the lone wolf: what we do and don’t know

    By Anne Aly

    Even with the growing body of empirical research contributing to understanding radicalization, cases such as that of Man Haron Monis raise questions about whether individual actors, known as “lone wolves,” are terrorists, violent extremists, radicals, or simply lone gun men. Contrary to popular belief, ideology and religion play a less important role in radicalization. Current research indicates that the emotional appeal to personal identity and group solidarity are far more significant factors in radicalization. What recent lone-wolf cases — Man Haron Monis in Sydney, Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Anders Breivik in Norway, and Mohammed Merah in France — tell us is that, unlike the strategic model of terrorism as a rational choice to carry out acts of violence in the name of a cause, these modern-day lone-wolf terrorists may be more like lone gunmen than terrorists.

  • TorturePublic support for torture declines as people learn the explicit details of torture techniques

    Does the American public condone torture when the goal is to prevent terrorist attacks? News headlines reporting the results of a Pew Research Center poll released on 9 December indicate more than half of Americans do. That finding, however, is not necessarily valid, says Tufts University’s Richard Eichenberg, who argues that the poll is flawed because it is based on a faulty premise. A more accurate picture of the nation’s attitude can be found in responses to polls conducted by Pew, Gallup, and other news organizations and analyzed in a 2010 report. These surveys explained in graphic detail what interrogation techniques were being judged. So while response to more general questions on the use of torture may continue to produce mixed reactions, Eichenberg says public support for torture will decline as more people become aware of the explicit details of torture techniques contained in the Senate report.

  • BubblesEthnic diversity among traders makes markets less likely to suffer bubbles: Study

    Stock market bubbles have led to economic catastrophes from the Great Depression through the dot-com boom of the 1990s and up to the recent housing financial crisis. Although these episodes cause widespread financial havoc, the reasons behind economic bubbles remain unclear. A new study proposes a cause: Bubbles happen when people mindlessly trust the behavior of others, particularly when surrounded by ethnic peers. The researchers found that markets of ethnically diverse traders are much less likely to suffer bubbles. These findings could have a lasting impact on economics — and ethnic diversity.

  • RadicalizationBrainwashing and radicalization don’t explain why young people join violent causes

    By Jason Hart

    Why do young people from Western societies join ISIS? Terms such as “brainwashing” and “radicalization” are typically and casually invoked to explain the phenomenon. Suggestions of brainwashing or radicalization imply that the object of such efforts has been profoundly diverted from their usual, reasonable way of thinking. The instigators of this mental trickery are implicitly credited with considerable psychological skill, while the target is simultaneously assumed to have some mental insufficiency or vulnerability. The young are commonly deemed to be easy prey for those seeking to enlist them for a “radical” cause. The problem is, it’s just not that simple. Arguing that a 15 or 16-year-old is able to make a reasoned choice about engagement in hostilities risks exposing that young person to the full force of the law – but using loose, inadequate concepts such as brainwashing and radicalization to explain young people’s engagement in political violence carries its own risks. It severely limits our ability to understand why young people are mobilized in support of a group such as Islamic State, and hinders intelligent debate about the wider changes needed to prevent them doing so. Moreover our efforts to reintegrate them once they come back are likely to prove desperately inadequate.

  • Infrastructure protectionGlobal warming skeptics unmoved by extreme weather

    What will it take to convince skeptics of global warming that the phenomenon is real? Surely, many scientists believe, enough droughts, floods, and heat waves will begin to change minds. A new study throws cold water on that theory. Winter 2012 was the fourth warmest winter in the United States dating back to at least 1895. Researchers found, however, that when it came to attributing the abnormally warm weather to global warming, respondents largely held fast to their existing beliefs and were not influenced by actual temperatures. This study and past research shows that political party identification plays a significant role in determining global warming beliefs. People who identify as Republican tend to doubt the existence of global warming, while Democrats generally believe in it.

  • Middle EastIs it fair to blame the West for trouble in the Middle East?

    By Anne Aly

    For at least a decade, attempts to understand why some young Muslims living in Western countries turn to violence in the name of religion have raised questions about Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Many blame the United States’ foreign policy. The Islamic State uses anger and grievance against Western intervention as a powerful recruiting tool. There is some truth to the argument that anger at foreign policy and the West’s engagement with the Arab world is at the heart of Muslim anger, as well as a driver of radicalization among Muslim youth, but the current state of affairs in the Middle East is not simply an outcome of Western intervention and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Western foreign policy in the region has no doubt influenced the current situation, but the conditions for the spread of militant Islamism have come from attempts to deal with the crisis within: a crisis that is as much political in nature as it is religious.