A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Michele Gelfand

Researcher Spotlight: Michele Gelfand

December 18, 2012Emily Bonta

December's researcher spotlight features Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Gelfand's research focuses on conflict, negotiation and revenge as well as cross-cultural psychology. She received the Anneliese Maier Research Award from the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Foundation last year for being one of the leading researchers in international culture and conflict. She has been the PI on a Multi-University Research Initiative (MURI) examining culture and negotiation in the Middle East through social science and computational perspectives.

She also co-edits an annual series on Advances in Culture and Psychology (Oxford University Press). The National Interest Journal recently published an op-ed by Gelfand and START colleague, Arie Kruglanski on Sri Lankan terrorism in September. Terp Magazine also featured Gelfand and Kruglanski in its fall 2012 Issue. Gelfand's focus on cross-cultural and organizational psychology led her to begin working with START, bringing a new perspective to START research.

Describe your educational background.
I was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y. and attended Colgate University for my undergraduate degree. I was a pre-med student for a while, but stumbled upon a cross-cultural psychology class and became fascinated with the study of culture. I graduated from Colgate with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology. I began working with a cross-cultural trainer in Boston after graduating and was looking to do some graduate work in conflict, negotiation and revenge.

I came across the work of Harry Triandas, a leader in the field of cross-cultural psychology and professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I decided to do my graduate work at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and received both my master's degree and doctorate in social/organizational psychology.

How did you become interested in terrorism studies and how do you see intersections between terrorism studies and psychology?
Like many other terrorism studies researchers, I first became interested in the field after 9/11. I was interested in looking to see how we could use psychology to understand the motives behind the attacks. Since one of my primary research focuses is organizational psychology, I felt that this could be applicable to most terrorist organizations. Much of what I teach, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, focuses on organizational psychology and how organizations operate.

Focusing on how organizations are created and maintained, as well as how they recruit members, is a large part of what I do evaluating any organization, whether it be a Fortune 500 company or a terrorist group. I felt that the theories, research and tools in organizational psychology had a lot to offer terrorism studies. I was interested in thinking about terrorist organizations in a more non-traditional way through using psychological tools.

How did you become involved with START?
Gary LaFree initially reached out to me -- he was looking to start a project examining national culture and its implications in relation to prevalence-based terrorism. Prevalence-based terrorism had been studied through an economic or political factors lens, but cultural factors have received less attention.

I thought there was a lot that could be done in terms of combining cultural data and data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). I began working with Arie Kruglanski, my psychology department colleague and a START researcher, on the Countering Jihadist Ideology among Detainees: The Effects and Effectiveness of De-Radicalization Programs project. I saw a lot of connections between my studies in psychology and the work that START does. It seemed like a natural fit.

What are your hobbies outside of your work with START?
Outside of work, most of my time is devoted to being a mother to my two girls, who are 8 and 11. Most of my free time is spent with them and my family. I am also active in jazzercise and love cooking, traveling, theater, and art as well.

What would you consider the most interesting project you have been able to work on with START?
All of the projects I've worked on have been incredibly interesting. Most recently, I was able to survey detainees in Sri Lanka about their attitudes toward de-radicalization. Getting out there and looking at factors that cause an individual to become de-radicalized was really interesting.

I got to look at whether or not interventions are successful in de-radicalization and what makes them effective or ineffective firsthand. Being on the ground and getting this data was remarkably interesting.

Do you have any plans for any future START research projects?
I'll definitely be continuing de-radicalization work in the future. I was just in the Philippines gathering data examining detainees' attitudes. In Sri Lanka, I am specifically looking at reintegration efforts for detainees and what causes them to be re-radicalized. I'm also planning on doing some work with immigrants in different countries and what makes them more susceptible to terrorist actions, whether or not they have been discriminated against, etc.

I'm particularly interested in how these processes vary in tight versus loose cultures, a distinction I recently wrote about in a paper published in Science. I'm specifically planning on looking at homegrown terrorism and immigrants to the United States; focusing on how their adjustment to U.S. society is related to the risk for radicalization.

Have you been able to incorporate any of your START research into your teaching?
I've presented research findings in doctoral seminars, at conferences and a wide variety of other settings. It's particularly interesting to do so given that psychology is relatively new area to be focusing on within terrorism studies. I've also served as a mentor for some of my doctoral students, many of whom are now START fellows. It's been so rewarding to help them get involved in the START mission.

Where would you like to see for START's future?
START is an incredible institution and I am so proud to be a part of it. START has really done so much for the social sciences over the years. I would like to see my colleagues endeavor to conduct some more international field research. It is important to get out there, on the ground and get a human subject's perspective. I definitely think it would be useful to expand that type of research in the future.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to go into terrorism studies?
I would definitely encourage any aspiring researchers to look for opportunities early. Terrorism studies is really such an important field and I would encourage anyone interested to look into any research opportunities available to them. START is a well-structured and developed program, replete with opportunity to get involved in research.