UChicago Study Explores How ISIS Lights up the Brains of Recruits

Renee L. Basick
Photo Credit: 
Images courtesy of Robert Pape (CPOST) and Jean Decety (SCNL)

Social and Neurological Construction of Martyrdom Project selected to receive $3.4M from Department of Defense

Understanding the reasons why young people are susceptible to recruitment by violent extremist organizations, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is a formidable undertaking that requires parsing a complex entanglement of social and neurological influences. An ambitious new research study lead by Political Scientist Robert Pape and Neuroscientist Jean Decety plans to take on this problem in an effort to determine exactly how cultures of martyrdom mobilize support for their most violent acts, especially suicide attacks. The results may be powerful tools in preventing future recruitment by these types of organizations, so much so, that the Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative has selected the project to receive $3.4 million in funding over the next 5 years. According to Pape, "this project will create a whole new pool of knowledge that will make an enormous contribution in an important policy area. As this new information goes forward, it could well influence policy decisions that will impact our national security.” 

Investigating Tools of Recruitment

Video can be a powerful tool of persuasion for groups like ISIS. These "martyr videos" are often highly produced last testaments of suicide bombers who use the medium as a means of expressing their motivation to act, in hopes of inspiring new recruits to embrace the same mode of thinking. While these types of videos have been produced for decades, it is only since the advent of high quality, inexpensive production equipment and software, as well as efficient means of global distribution via social networks, that martyr videos have become an integral part of recruitment strategies. In the first phase of the project, Pape’s team will systematically analyze the content of videos produced by a wide range of violent extremist organizations. In phase two, Decety’s team will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural pathways through which martyrdom appeals evoke sympathy in the viewer. They aim to uncover exactly what is happening in the brain when an individual is persuaded to change their beliefs. Until now, there has not been a method to study whether it is a message’s intellectual content or emotional impact that resonates with a viewer. By using fMRI, researchers can see what areas of the brain “light up” when specific messages are heard. 

An Unprecedented Approach

Historically, political scientists and neuroscientists have been relatively distant colleagues. Opportunities to collaborate have been infrequent within these two fields of the social sciences not only at UChicago, but in the discipline as a whole. Pape believes this project to be truly unprecedented.


"Over the last 15 years, we’ve had a tremendous rise of research in terrorism and insurgency and at the same time, over the last 15 years, we’ve had a tremendous rise in using neurological tools and techniques like fMRI scans to better understand psychological processes but we’ve never had these two streams of research married together to work hand in hand before. This is unique in the world."


It may also influence the way research is conducted more broadly. Division of the Social Sciences Associate Dean for Research & Strategic Initiatives, Cate Goebel, was instrumental in crafting the proposal to the Minerva Initiative and can attest to the singular nature of the project’s methodology. 


"To my knowledge, this is the first major research project to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify messaging tactics and audience neurobiological characteristics that, combined with psychological dispositions, predict whether violent extremist organization appeals will resonate with and influence the receiver. It's also the first time we've brought political scientists and psychologists together in this way. If the project is successful, my hope is that our faculty members will use this approach to study political violence and media more broadly."


David Nirenberg, Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, thinks this project may be the birth of a whole new school of thought at the University of Chicago. According to Nirenberg, the project embodies the collaborative, creative approach to inquiry that the University is famous for. 


"What is beautiful about this project is the way in which it combines methodologies—qualitative and quantitative, socio-political analysis and cognitive neuroscience—to open a new approach in the field of terrorism research.  Two distinctive Chicago approaches, to international relations and to cognitive neuroscience, are coming together to tackle a difficult problem.  This is the type of collaboration out of which so many “Chicago Schools” of social science have been born, and I’m excited to see what this one will produce."


The Minerva Research Initiative agreed to fund an additional two phases of the project that will include an expansion of the social investigation to a wider group of violent extremist organizations and to extend the neurological investigation to potential martyr recruits in conflict areas. The final phases of the project include published findings and a conference to share results with leading scholars and policymakers.

Building Counter-terrorism Strategies

Understanding how ISIS and similar groups effectively use media to recruit participants to conduct violent acts provides the knowledge required to create opposing strategies. The Social and Neurological Construction Martyrdom Project will provide tools that will allow defense professionals to do just this. The project will develop a detailed analysis of violent extremist organizations’ communication strategies and a breakdown by region and campaign in order to provide a nuanced view of the culture of martyrdom. The final report will also include a set of indicators that can predict a population’s susceptibility to persuasive videos distributed by ISIS and similar groups. Overall, the project aims to produce deeper understanding of the neurology of empathy and persuasion. According to the proposal, the project investigators "anticipate it will contribute to a capability to develop tailored communications strategies for successful counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism efforts."

Genesis of the Project

The Social and Neurological Construction of Martyrdom Project is an outgrowth of ongoing research on suicide terrorism conducted by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) lead by Pape. As part of this research, the team compiled a large collections of martyr videos from a number of extremist groups including the 9/11 hijackers, the July 2005 suicide bombers in London, numerous suicide attackers from Palestinian groups in Iraq and Lebanon and other places around the world. Recently, Pape approached Decety for ways to use various psychological and biometric tools to measure audience reactions to martyr videos. Once the Minerva funding opportunity became a possibility, a full collaboration evolved to carry out the research.


Many hands touched the proposal process, adding to its success. Goebel worked with Pape and Decety to identify the funding opportunity, to define the objectives and scope of the project, and to develop and refine the proposal. The team also worked with Kate VonHolle, Director of Federal Research Development at the University of Chicago, in Washington, DC, who met with the Minerva program officer and provided helpful information about the proposal review process. It is an ideal fit for the Department of Defense initiative, which, according to Goebel, "supports basic research in the behavioral and social sciences with obvious potential applications in, and relevance to, U.S. military and defense. Understanding violent extremist organization strategies will be critical for the military to develop effective counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts."

The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST)

The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism is a research institute located at the university that specializes in international security affairs. The CPOST team strives to provide policy-relevant scholarship on issues of international security in order to create new knowledge and recommendations, and to bridge the gap between academia and the policy world. Pape serves as the CPOST Director and leads a team of researchers who focus on three core research initiatives: terrorism, US-China relations, and intervention. Mike Rowley, CPOST’s Executive Director, explains that CPOST has an ambitious plan for undertaking new lines of research moving forward.


"In the past six months, CPOST has begun a major plan for expansion beyond international security studies (a very specific subset of political science). Recently, three additional political science faculty members, Paul Staniland, Benjamin Lessing, and Robert Gulotty, joined CPOST as Assistant Directors and created two new research initiatives: political violence and international political economy."


For Pape and Rowley, being awarded the Minerva grant is the first substantial step toward truly interdisciplinary work but as CPOST continues to evolve, they foresee this kind of unique collaboration becoming the rule, not the exception.


For more information about CPOST and their research, visit: http://cpost.uchicago.edu/


To learn more about Jean Decety's Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory (SCNL), visit: http://www.scnl.org/


For information about how the Division of the Social Sciences’ Research Development team can assist with research funding, please contact Cate Goebel: cgoebel@uchicago.edu