Science Scope

Can science stop terrorists before they strike?

Can science stop terrorists before they strike?

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Scientists try to figure out what works better to dissuade potential terrorists: positive or negative feedback.

If you have a child, or a dog, you know that there are two main forms of training: positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback rewards the kid, or the dog, when they don't poop on the rug. Negative feedback punishes them when they inevitably poop on the rug.

But what about more important things than a stinky stain on your carpet? Do either of those tactics work on potential terrorists? A new study in the American Sociological Review suggests that positive feedback - rewarding terrorists for abstinence - is far more effective than negative feedback - punishing them when they terrorize.

If this seems kind of weird to you, you're not alone. The standard line on terrorism is a negative one. Terrorism is bad, the people who do it are bad, and they should be punished. Which might be true, says lead author Erica Chenoweth, but it might not be the best way. "Our argument begins to challenge the very common view that to combat terrorism, you have to meet violence with violence," she said in the press release.

Okay, but how do you actually study something like that? The research relied on data from the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) who keeps a Global Terrorism Database (GTD) along with a database from the Government Actions in a Terrorist Environment-Israel (GATE-Israel). Enough acronyms for you yet? The GTD database keeps information about global terrorism, and the GATE-Israel database includes countererrorism strategies that Israel has used against Palestinian enemies. They then ranked those strategies on a seven point scale to assess how peaceful or violent they were.

So, by comparing the two databases - one with terrorism in general in the region, and one with counterterrorism information - the researchers could try and figure out which methods worked best.

What they found was that peaceful tactics like providing social services, withdrawing troops, and releasing prisoners seemed to be more effective than the violent ones such as extending prison sentences, assassination, and deportation.

Of course, both positive and negative reinforcement have their place. The authors point out that punishment is still a useful strategy, and shouldn't necessarily be eliminated completely, but be balanced, and studied further.

The big takeaway here is that science can, in fact, help us understand how to react to things as non-sensical as terrorism. For example, the study shows that there's a big difference in the effective responses to criminals and to terrorists. "Strategies that successfully deter common criminals may be ineffective for terrorists," Chenoweth said in the press release. "This is because terrorists are generally less concerned about being punished and more concerned about their role in ensuring the well-being of their movement and its constituency." Taking a quantitative approach to anti-terrorism methods could increase effectiveness and help countries spend their money more wisely.

Via: Newswise

Image: gnislew / Flickr

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure