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

Motivated to learn about human motivation

Researcher Q&A with Irina Iles

Spurred on by an anti-smoking poster, a 13-year old Irina ​​Iles launched a campaign to convince her mother to quit smoking.

Her mother insisted that she would be fine and that quitting smoking required a lot more than putting the ashtray away. As a college student Iles finally came to understand the motive behind her mother’s words.

“I’ve always associated my interest in public health and persuasion with that event because it made me reflect on how people become motivated to do things,” Iles said.

Iles, a START senior researcher in the Risk Communication and Resilience Program, credits her campaign against smoking as the impetus to a long research career.

Her research, yielding more than 50 publications, conference papers and research reports, has spanned a variety of topics outside of terrorism studies, from nutrition labels on snack foods to the battle between ironic and sarcastic humor. Prior to landing at START she taught college courses on communication and research methods and worked as a research fellow for the Food and Drug Administration.

Iles describes herself as a “doer.” She believes in finishing what she started in an efficient manner while still maintaining a high standard for her work.

How did you initially get involved with the study of terrorism and risk communication?

I have extensive training in persuasion and quantitative methodology and analysis. As a result, about three years ago, Dr. Brooke Liu asked me if I wanted to join a DARPA-funded project looking into what the public thinks about adopting portable radiation detectors, a national security technology that monitors abnormal levels of radiation in a user’s immediate environment. The aim of the project was to understand the decision-making process underlying adoption intentions and, based on that, to make recommendations on how these devices should be presented to the public to maximize acceptance. That’s the definition of persuasion – to understand how people think and what factors they consider when making a decision, and then using that information to design messages that will shift their attitudes and behaviors in a desired direction. The DARPA project also required advanced statistical analyses so I think it was a natural fit for me. The topic also intrigued me, given that it was completely new to me and, as we later found out, it was also new to the research community. I always love a good challenge.

What is your favorite thing to research or write about?

I get this question often. I have come to learn that what I am invariably passionate about is not any specific applied context I am conducting research on, but understanding the psychological processes that underlie human judgment and decision-making in health and risk-related situations. Whether it is in the area of nutrition, condom use, national security, or smoking cessation, what I am trying to figure out is how people reason and form perceptions, and, ultimately take action (or inaction). Of course, these processes differ depending on context, which is why my research varies in that regard. I draw a lot of my insight from psychology and decision-making literatures, yet I approach my research from a communication perspective in that I study the implications of psychological processes for effective risk communication. In other words, I try to understand how we can most effectively communicate about risks to promote behavior change and informed decision making.

To be honest, though, the role of emotions in judgment and decision-making has probably been my favorite topic to research and write about for quite some time now.

How have your research interests evolved over your career?

Rather than my research interests changing, the way I pose research questions has changed. I’ve always been interested in how people make decisions in health and risk situations and in how we, as communicators, can help them better those decisions. Over the years, though, I have learned how complex the answers to my questions are and how interdisciplinary work is a better approach to answering them. What that means is that today I either approach an issue from an interdisciplinary perspective myself (by incorporating relevant literatures into my project) or try to work with colleagues who complement my expertise. My network of collaborators is limited, but I have really enjoyed working on an opioid-related communication project with experts from public health, the medical field, and the federal government. It’s amazing how much richer our research questions and overall research approach were.

How has your work with START helped to advance your research interests?

First, my work with START gives me the opportunity to apply my knowledge to areas that are yet to be fully developed in terms of communication research. As a result, I hope it will enable me to both theoretically and practically contribute to these areas. Second, START projects give me the opportunity to work with specialized populations (e.g., crisis leaders, security officers, meteorologists); given that a significant portion of communication research focuses on the general public, studying other populations is quite valuable. Finally, START research informs government officials’ decisions on important matters, which is all I wanted to be a part of when I grow up – decisions with real impact on people’s lives.

Are there any topics you wish you could do in depth research on that you haven’t already?

Yes. I’m interested in looking at how we can best communicate scientific uncertainty to the public so that the public doesn’t end up concluding that we scientists don’t know anything. Whereas uncertainty regarding scientific findings is often very small, the lay public does not necessarily interpret it as such, resulting in exaggerated reactions. Distrust in science and unresponsiveness to critical scientific developments are two such reactions that can have devastating long-term effects in not addressed.

We need the public’s support and trust and I think effectively communicating science to them (science that is inherently uncertain) is how we can get there.

What are you working on now? What projects lie in the future for you?

I am working on two projects – one that tries to understand how individuals in positions of leadership communicate before, during, and after a crisis; and one that looks at how meteorologists decide to warn the public about tornados, including the content of such warnings.

It’s hard for me to think about the future, as I am currently fully dedicated to finishing my dissertation research in any spare time I have. It’s a rather complex project involving four experiments so writing it all down seems overwhelming at times. After that project is complete, I am sure I will quickly come up with something because I almost always have research questions I want to answer.  

What are your interests outside of your research? What do you do for fun?

Probably cliché, but my research takes up most of my time right now. I imagine things will clear up a little after I earn my degree. I’m quite the beer and wine lover, so I enjoy trying out new breweries/wineries whenever I can. I also have a cat so I spend whatever free time I have playing with her; brief PSA – pet obesity is a real problem so I try to make sure she gets enough exercise.