The Science of Countering Terrorism: Psychological Perspectives

Knight Conference Center

One of the most important aspects in preventing terrorist activity is addressing the human dimension that underlies extremist behavior. What are the psychological roots of terrorism? What social and psychological factors lead some people to commit violent terrorist acts? And importantly, are there opportunities to change human behavior to prevent these acts of violence?

In this Science Café, two scholars, Fathali Moghaddam (Georgetown University) and Ian McGregor (York University, Toronto), described research on the underpinnings of extremist behavior. Together the researchers addressed the macro-level social and psychological processes that underlie extremism and the “staircase” to terrorist activity as well as more micro-level social neuroscience mechanisms that explain zealous reactions to perceived psychological threats.

Improving our understanding of the human dimension of this global problem will aid in creating sound policies that reduce the threat of terrorist activity.



Ian McGregor

Fathali Moghaddam



Ian McGregor, PhD

York University

Ian McGregor is an Associate Professor of Personality and Social Psychology in the Faculty of Health at York University, Toronto, Canada. His experimental research on conviction and zeal is internationally acclaimed, published in the top scientific journals, and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

His most recent research reveals social factors and personality traits that combine to cause political and religious extremism. It also illuminates neural mechanisms that can help explain why people go to extremes. His research is guided by rigorous psychological science methods and by insights gleaned from his eclectic personal and academic background.

He grew up as the son of a Baptist minister, studied theology and philosophy at a seminary, and earned degrees in Biomedical Science (BSc), General Psychology (BA), Personality Psychology (MA), and Social Psychology (PhD). Further, before his current position at York University he held a post-doctoral research position in the Department of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. McGregor is married and lives with his wife and two young children in Waterloo, Canada.

Fathali Moghaddam, PhD

Georgetown University

Fathali Moghaddam is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Conflict Resolution Program, Georgetown University, and Senior Fellow of the Center on Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism. Dr. Moghaddam was born in Iran, educated in England, and worked for the United Nations and for McGill University before joining Georgetown. He returned to Iran in the ‘spring of revolution’ in 1979, and was researching there during the hostage taking crisis and the early years of the Iran-Iraq war.

Among Dr. Moghaddam’s most recent books are “How Globalization Spurs Terrorism” (2008), “Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations” (2008), and “From the Terrorists’ Point of View” (2006). Dr. Moghaddam is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Association and has been invited to provide testimony to the U. S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.