A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Modeling and Simulation of Individual and Group Decision-making

Modeling and Simulation of Individual and Group Decision-making

Project Details


Wilkenfeld developed and conducted human-agent and survey-based simulations to examine such questions as: what contextual changes encourage group mobilization or an individual to join a pre-existing group, how does uncertainty affect an individual's support for more extremist views and tactics, and what impact does selective information (e.g., media stories) have on the probability that an individual will view terrorism as legitimate or appropriate? The models upon which these simulations are based result from the ongoing research of START affiliates, while the simulations themselves provide a means to test the degree to which individuals' reactions to specific stimuli vary and allow for a further specification of working hypotheses regarding terrorist-group formation and recruitment.

Primary Findings: 

Using experimental research methods, this project explored factors that influence the likelihood that an individual would be willing to use, or justify the use of, terrorism and whether he/she could be mobilized to take any form of action - whether protest or terror. The research team explores how the likelihood of such action is related to individuals' levels of perceived grievance and risk, their desire for social dominance, and their attitudes towards authority.

Willingness to Use Terror Willingness to use terror is rare: Approximately 10% of our total sample (31 of 309 participants) indicated that they planned to use terrorism in the context of the experiment. Willingness to use terror is not directly influenced by individuals' level of grievance (in the form of past and ongoing discrimination and oppression). Willingness to use terror is related to individuals' level of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO; a general desire for group based dominance and hierarchy rather than equality; coupled with endorsement of ideologies that legitimize inequality). While those who are higher on SDO are less likely to take any form of action, those who are higher on SDO who do support action are 14% more likely to choose terror (rather than protest). An individual's justification of the use of terrorism by others is 16% more likely with higher grievance. Higher levels of grievance make mobilization 16% more likely. Higher levels of risk (as indicated by individual's perception of effective and harsh state repression for taking action) make mobilization 18% less likely. Women are 11% less likely to mobilize than men. Those who are higher on SDO were 38% less likely to take any form of action. They are 49% less likely to engage in protest, and 16% less likely to feel that protest is justified. Those who are higher on Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA; a robust measure of individual attitudes toward authority and a predictor of higher levels of prejudice against a wide range of racial and religious minorities) are 35% less likely to mobilize in general, 29% less likely to engage in protest, and 22% less likely to feel that protest is justified.


The research team developed four scenarios which systematically vary level of grievance and level of risk. These scenarios were presented as vignettes that ask participants to imagine themselves as residents of an ethnically divided society (a fictional country called Bucharastan) where they belong to a weaker and historically discriminated-against ethnic group (a fictional group called the Estamese). Participants included 309 participants, including 221 undergraduates from the University at Albany, SUNY and 88 undergraduates from Purchase College, SUNY (140 females (45%), 169 males (55%), mean age = 19.7).


Project Period: 
June 2005 to May 2008