Terrorism and targeted violence are complex problems that require complex thinking across a host of domains. Take the work of a pair of NCITE researchers from Penn State — Sam Hunter, a psychologist, and Scarlett Miller, an engineer. The two come from completely different fields but have teamed up to test this contention: that violent thinking can be interrupted, limited, and essentially reengineered.
The two have worked together in the past 10 years on projects aiming to boost creativity and remove the kind of “writer’s block” that prevents people from thinking more broadly around any problem. For NCITE, they are trying the reverse: to engineer barriers to creativity in order to steer those intent on committing ideological violence down predictable pathways.
Predictable behavior is easier to counter or stop. The novelty is the most dangerous.
“The more novel, the less prepared we are,” Hunter said. “If we can somehow reduce that novelty, get people fixated on doing things in a predictable way, we get some insight and some ability to protect ourselves.”
The genesis for the project came from past experience. Hunter and Miller have studied barriers to creativity and how to remove them to help people, generally students who get fixated on ideas and can’t innovate. In that work, they came to find a lot of natural crossover in their different backgrounds: Hunter is a builder. Miller applies basic principles of psychology in engineering design.
If we can somehow reduce that novelty, get people fixated on doing things in a predictable way, we get some insight and some ability to protect ourselves.
- Sam Hunter, PSU
Their interdisciplinary work reinforced the nature of creativity: having a research partner who can see the same problem through different eyes helps reframe it, making it easier to solve. The two have won past National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health grants to study engineering design and product design and how to improve central venous catheter insertion. Hunter leads the Leadership & Innovation Lab at Penn State. Miller leads the BriteLab, a research group dedicated to bridging innovation, technology, and engineering.
The NCITE project, in itself, is a creative one. Their project would add to a still-nascent area of study in creative disruption. Among the aspects they will study are worldview thinking that leads to a fixation on violence or would increase the likelihood of acting in violence.
Hunter is interested in cognitive interruptions that might deter malevolent creativity, in learning who is likely to come up with violent devices. Miller can figure out how methods that cause harm work.
Their NCITE project involves several layers. First is discovery. They are looking at the history of malevolent creativity, performing some case analyses on terrorist attacks that used novel approaches and backgrounding themselves on how violent extremists engage creatively. Then they begin pilot work on tasks that induce fixation. Once institutional review board and other approvals occur, they will launch more fully into the experiment, looking at individual psychological predictors on creativity and whether someone has the ability to implement the idea.
Thinking about creativity as a process of generation (idea) and implementation (action) allows the team to develop more precise tools aimed at disruption.
This project is an example of the interdisciplinary work needed to confront complicated problems. Homeland Security needs experts in both social sciences and technological fields.
What makes this project particularly impactful, said NCITE Director Gina Ligon, is the two-fold benefit.
“First, it informs analysts in the Counterterrorism Mission Center (CTMC) about likely antecedents of when terrorists might get ‘stuck’ in their planning,” Ligon said. “Second, we plan to use lessons learned to design a series of exercises to amplify the creativity of our current and future counterterrorism workforce.”