Racefan’s Ramblings

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Reading the Terrorist Mind

Posted by Pat Kershaw on November 10, 2006

I find this a very timely piece. With al the “war on terrorism, and associated hype, how do you get into their minds” The following excerpts are from The Frontal Cortex : Reading the Terrorist Mind . November 8, 2006 10:35 AM, by Jonah Lehrer

I’m skeptical of these sorts of psychological models – an important part of the terrorist strategy is to not have a coherent strategy – but it’s certainly a noble effort:

“Imagine that we had a mathematical formula that could be applied to Israel’s enemies to predict their course of action?

Prof. Alex Mintz of Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya claims to have created just that. Mintz has developed a formula to map how terrorist organizations make their decisions. His theory can be applied to any leader in the world, whether heads of state or terror masterminds. …”

“How does this formula work? It mimics the decision-making process of a terror organization, involving thousands of minute details. The process is twofold: first the leader rules out the options that his group cannot carry out, and then the organization maximizes “specific dimensions on the remaining alternatives.”

This is all plugged into his custom-designed computer program, which takes into account funds, weapons, opposition, elections and the most heavily weighed factor, politics. The algorithms do the rest.

What separates Mintz’s calculations from those of other experts in the field? In the world of game and decision theory there are two basic camps: the rational approach, with roots in economics, and the cognitive approach, which is rooted in psychology. Mintz’s theory is one of the first that “combines elements of both in an attempt to bridge the gap between the rational and cognitive in decision-making.”

It should also be noted that Mintz isn’t the first scientist interested in deciphering the inscrutable decisions of terrorists. I’ve got a short article on Neil Johnson in the next Seed, so I won’t describe his research in too much detail here. But Johnson has constructed a model of the terrorist mind using some techniques from the physics of complex systems. After analyzing the casualty counts and battlefield reports from several major conflicts (from Iraq to Indonesia to Columbia), Johnson realized that all the conflicts looked the same. The terrorists were all operating from an identical playbook. “In every war we looked at,” Johnson told me, “we saw the same basic patterns. On the one hand, there were lots of little clashes that had very few casualties. As you increase the number of casualties, the number of clashes is much fewer. But the really surprising thing is the way in which every war goes between these two extremes.” When Johnson graphed the relationship between the number of clashes and the number of casualties per clash, he discovered a striking consistency between totally unrelated wars. “The numbers fall perfectly on this straight line called a power-law function,” he says. “When you measure the slope of the line, you find that the number is right around 2.5. It doesn’t matter if it’s for Iraq, Columbia, Senegal or Indonesia. The line never changes.”

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