In the Face of Terror: The Need for More Concerted Applied Emotion Research
March 2015 – Let me just state it at the beginning: I am sick and tired of being bombarded (pun intended) with images and stories of terrorist threats. The effects on politics, and on our local, national, and transnational conversations are as undeniable as they are pervasive. As a result, everyday life is tainted in the after-9/11 world by surges in fear, anxiety, anger, indignation, hatred, and other unpalatable emotions. This is not accidental, but by design. Terror is about emotions, as the name already implies. Surely, terrorism is not a new invention, but in the age of global mass-media in the second half of the last century, it has become more visual, more media-savvy and practically inescapable.
In this millennium, the boundaries between mass media and interpersonal communication have been blurred, as a result of the rise of the Internet and the use of powerful portable communication technology. Production (and reception) possibilities are now ubiquitous with more filming and editing power in a current smart phone than a small movie-making studio might have had a few decades ago. Suddenly, it feels like we have become pawns in a terrorist chess game. How so? We let them kidnap our senses, we let them invade our memories with grotesque displays of violence instead of, if you pardon my Reagan, Just Saying No.
Who has never indulged in clicking on a gruesome terrorist-produced video linked by a reputable news source only to regret it seconds later? Doing so is not only unhealthy for its lingering effects on memory: it also amounts to playing the terrorist game. There are many reasons to believe that ever more extreme violence is fostered by the knowledge that the outrageous images are being perceived by the desired targets. This explains the movie-like quality of the latest ISIS productions, with their sick attention for the gruesome detail, with their leaving nothing to the imagination. This amounts to violence porn. As Marion G. Müller puts it – the best weapon against terrorism is oblivion.
This is all well and true in general, but as emotion researchers we have an additional responsibility, namely using our skills to unveil the role of emotions in the creation and propagation of terrorism, so as to provide our small contribution toward helping to address it. I do remember vividly having Nico Frijda as a guest-speaker during my decade at Laval University in Quebec City. Nico was truly upset about the atrocities happening in the Balkans at the time. He cried out “How is it possible that emotion researchers have nothing to say about this?” How indeed? In my current musings on what we could actually say, I find myself confronted with a lack of serious application of emotion science to the study of terrorism-related emotions, from those of the recruits, to those of the victims, to those of the impacted society at large. One possibility is that there is nothing truly helpful we could say about such topics. I refuse to believe it, and if it were true we ought to find ourselves another job. What I think is the case is that we do have knowledge that could be applied to shed light on the causes of terror, on the role of media in the communication of terrorist deeds, and ultimately on what we could do as a society to respond to this scourge.
Dealing with such large scale projects would demand that emotion science gets its hands dirty and collaborates with journalists, law enforcement officers, social workers and more generally all parties with a role in shaping the social forces that give raise to terror and give it a world-wide echo chamber. But who else should do this research but us? Who has more experience in emotion research than ISRE? So what should we do?
One of the problems with expanding the scope of our research and making it practically helpful in the way required is that our research budgets are typically ridiculously low compared to the task at hand. We might be excited to have a grant of 50k$ but that does not buy much. It is enough if the job to be done is to figure out what facial expressions a few surprised undergraduates produce. It is a pittance if the job to be done is to figure out what leads an educated English undergraduate to become a ferocious killer like Jihadi John or to figure out what leads French high school young girls to be fascinated by terrorists in a chat room to the point of joining them in the Islamic State. To be clear – such efforts would require complex interdisciplinary research. Emotions play some part here, but this is embedded in complex social and historical contexts, obviously. The task might be easier regarding issues relating to mass media processes and effects than dealing with the specific root causes of terrorism. There are many aspects of this story where emotions play an important role!
My own research has been well funded over the last few years, but as I was visiting a chemistry laboratory a couple of days ago, I could not help but reflect on the fact that the value of some equipment standing around in a corner would equal the total cost of my research of the last 5 years including all salaries and equipment. Serious emotion research of the sort required to provide even a small contribution towards helping defeat terrorism would cost serious money. Not one PhD. Not two. Not three. Not one lab. Not two. Not three. Not one country. Not two. Not three.
Consider this: globally, many millions of dollars are invested in behavioral software and training to identify potential perpetrators at airports – and emotions play an important part here. How solid is the evidence behind these programs? In many cases, software engineers and their consultants rely on hunches rather than established scientific data, or cherry-pick the work of individual emotion scientists. I am not saying their suggestions are necessarily wrong – even though serious doubts have been raised recently. I am saying that the investigation of the underlying phenomena is lacking scientific systematicity. As large-scale collaborative efforts to verify the reproducibility of psychological science are underway, the same should be done for the body of evidence specific to emotion science.
There is good reason to believe that neither of the two main competing theories (neuro-cultural vs. behavioral ecology) trying to explain the relationship between emotion and expression that software engineers or computer scientists often appear to take for granted captures what is going on. However, this is currently a matter of us sitting on sofas and having a friendly conversation – should we not define a serious research program that would once and for all clarify whether we can trust facial activity enough to use it for the diagnosis of impeding crime and terror?
I am not talking about individual researchers here. I am talking about a scientific panel formed by world-class experts that defines a series of practice-oriented studies, and tries to avoid idealization as much as possible, including all relevant variables, such as cultural differences, individual differences, contextual factors and so on, and aiming for solid replications across labs. You know, serious stuff. Not research politics. Not the usual turf battles between basic emotion theorists and their opponents. And if the answer is not definitive, at least we can be explicit about what the current scientific state of the art is.
This does not mean that such a project would solve all problems and automatically lead to the development of excellent software applications, e.g., regarding the interpretation of facial behavior. For example, in the debate on the validity of lie-detectors/polygraphs, serious panels have been installed. They have clearly concluded that scientific evidence does not support the use of lie detectors as conclusive proof in courts of law. That has not stopped companies or agencies from using them. But at least the situation is clear – the scientific evidence is not solid enough to trust “lie detectors” conclusively.
Facial behavior is not the only area of research related to terrorism to which emotion researchers could contribute. Other areas ripe for scientific examination comprise the emotional and behavioral impact of consuming images of terror, the influence of mass-media portrayals of terror on political decision making, the emotions of perpetrators and victims of terror, and many other topics.
I am suggesting that our community of researchers reflects on this simple question: How can my research help? We should involve all of the disciplines that are part of the ISRE family and that can provide a helpful contribution – from sociology to biology, from psychology to anthropology, from philosophy to history, from political science to neuroscience. I am addressing here the issue of terror as a special and immediate challenge, but these reflections are related to the more general issue of applied emotion research.
Let me be clear, I am making these suggestions without prejudice as regards the results of such efforts. While not all outcomes are equally likely, most are possible when it comes to understanding extremely complicated societal phenomena involving emotions. But if we can say that something has been studied seriously and transparently, then the arguments and recommendations we can make towards the media, towards governments, and towards other stake-holders can be a lot more serious. And serious we should be in the face of terror.
This is a new challenge, and we need the best emotion research to tackle it. We need joint scientific efforts, rather than individual musings under the shower or non-expert chit chat in talk shows – I hear too many of these whenever I turn on my TV. We have over a century of good ideas and data. It is time to put them to work towards solving a major social problem that is in danger of threatening our social lives for many years to come. So let’s get serious about this now.