01/30/2015 04:23 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2015

Perhaps We Can Prevent Terrorism

Does it seem like we are winning the "war" on terror? Events in Paris, Syria, Iraq, and Libya in recent weeks make it hard to be optimistic.

We should not be surprised. Our pursuit of this "war" conflicts with scientific understanding of human behavior. When people are attacked, their biologically driven response is to counterattack. Yet we continue to pursue a military strategy that focuses narrowly on apprehending or attacking terrorists, while ignoring the collateral effects our actions have in inciting terrorism in the first place. Our science is consistent with the bumper sticker observation that "We are making terrorists faster than we can kill them."

The physiological processes that underpin the harmful effects of stress are well understood. When people are exposed to trauma it "rewires" their physiology in ways that makes them hyper-vigilant to threat and quick to react to real or perceived danger with fear, anger, and aggression. This is the natural result of our evolutionary heritage - a survival mechanism. Both sides of any conflict are prone to become more belligerent when threatened--whether it is "justified" or not and whether such violence works in the modern world.

Human counter-aggressive tendencies are also a product of group-level evolution. Groups that were quick to coalesce around the protection of the clan were more likely to survive. Social psychologists have shown that groups faced with a threat as trivial as another group building better bird houses will become more cohesive and cooperative in order to defeat rival groups. Members of the same race or religion are prone to protect and defend other members of their group.

Since the tragic events in Paris, reports are coming out that show how these facts are being ignored in our efforts to deal with terrorism. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a French sociologist writing in the New York Times describes how France has allowed Muslim communities in France to become alienated from the French culture partly due to joblessness and discrimination. When young men turn to petty crime, it leads to prison, in which more harsh and discriminatory treatment results in religious awakening and radicalization. Waiting until alienated, angry, young men embrace a compelling vision of jihad and then arresting them--if we can--is simply a failed policy.

We need to adopt a much more pragmatic approach to the problem of terrorism. At its core, pragmatism is a philosophy that asks not whether our verbal analysis of a problem is "true" but whether or not it works. If the empirical fact is that our "war" on terror is motivating thousands of young men to want to engage in terrorist attacks, then we need to ask whether there is a better strategy.

The first step in adopting a more pragmatic approach to the problem of terrorism is to accept the fact that we live in a changed world and that we will feel fear and anger, which is a natural result of how we evolved. We can have those feelings and yet choose to do non-hostile things and see if they reduce the hostility of those we fear.

The second step is to develop and test strategies for reaching out to alienated Muslim communities in respectful and nurturing ways. Given that it is impossible to be sure which young people will most likely join a terrorist organization, we need to put more emphasis on how we can reduce the sense of threat and alienation in entire communities, rather than waiting until radicalization has already occurred.

If you feel resistance to this suggestion, I ask you to consider that such reactions are a natural product of our evolutionary heritage, but need not stop us from testing such a strategy. It just might work. Systematic, rigorous experimental evaluation of such strategies can and should be conducted. Behavioral science has advanced to the point where most strategies of governments can be experimentally evaluated. We can accumulate increasingly effective strategies in this way.

I don't want to minimize the challenge involved in adopting more nurturing, less alienating approaches to the Muslim community. As long as the majority of citizens are hostile and fearful of members of the Muslim community, many members of the Muslim community will be fearful and hostile. Even writing this last sentence points to the problem. A non-Muslim who is fearful, may be quick to see me as saying that the problem is the fault of non-Muslims. But inter-group conflict is typically reciprocal. Members of any group are quick to see threats to their group and to blame the other group. We must find ways to build positive interactions between members of these groups.

As we are pouring billions into the war on terror, we should be putting millions into studying how we can build positive social relations between members of our Muslim communities and those in non-Muslim communities.

Anthony Biglan is a Senior Scientist at Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Oregon and author of the forthcoming book, The Nurture Effect.