Terrorism experiments

Terrorism experiments
Daniel G Arce, Rachel TA Croson & Catherine C Eckel
The University of Texas at Dallas
Experimental research has a long-established tradition in psychology and sociology, and a more recent but important history as a
useful methodology in economics. In this article, we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of experiments as a method for study-
ing terrorism and other national security topics. For example, given the paucity of data on counterterror policy decisions by
governments, as well as for planning, targeting and selecting methods of attack by terrorist organizers, the experimental approach
can substitute for this lack of field data. Experiments can also identify policy counterfactuals that might otherwise be unobser-
vable. Hence, we begin by discussing several theoretical themes in the analysis of terrorism: interdependent security games such
as airline screening; the dual nature of pre-emptive versus deterrent counterterror policies and the implications of this duality for
policy coordination among targeted nations; the resurgence of interest in Colonel Blotto games when properly adjusted to reflect
the asymmetric conflict between target governments and terrorist groups; and the relationship between terrorist activity and
extreme punishments (or vendettas). The small but emerging literature using experiments to examine these issues is reviewed,
paying particular attention to how experimental results can inform theory and policy. Finally, we propose new directions for
researchers to explore.
conflict experiments, counterterrorism game, interdependent security, terrorism experiments
Research on terrorism and national security has significantly
increased since the 11 September attack. Researchers in diverse
fields have increasingly turned their attention to questions
around terrorism and national security. Significant progress
has been made, especially in developing models to explain and
predict terrorist attacks and in analysis of observational data-
sets/event studies and survey data. Other articles in this special
issue, as well as previous special issues around this topic, attest
to the impact of this body of work: for example Journal of Con-
flict Resolution (2000) 44(6), Defense and Peace Economics
(2003) 14(6), Journal of Conflict Resolution (2005) 49(2),
Defense and Peace Economics (2005) 16(5), and Journal of Con-
flict Resolution (2010) 54(2).
However, information on national security decisions – the
decisions that countries make in response to terrorist threats
– is relatively scarce. Governmental officials are often (under-
standably) close-lipped about their chosen policies and the rea-
soning which led to them. This leaves researchers with little
ability to test the predictions of models involving national
security decisions, to distinguish between competing models
or to refine their predictions of countries’ reactions in advance
of extreme events. We believe that controlled laboratory
experiments offer a useful methodology in this context, and
that experiments have the potential to significantly contribute
to our studies of terrorism and national security.
Lab experiments are related to, but remain distinct from
other types of empirical work, including observational (empiri-
cal) research, surveys, and field (or social) experiments. In
observational research, a researcher collects and analyses natu-
rally occurring data (e.g. historical observations of attacks, as in
Brandt & Sandler, 2010). In survey research, individuals from
the population of interest answer questions about their
intentions, motivations or behaviors (e.g. the motivations for
terrorists to attack, as in Fair & Shepherd, 2006). Finally, field
or social experiments involve a comparison of policies by indu-
cing them in different populations or in the same population
over different times (e.g. different security procedures at air-
ports). Very few countries or other organizations are comfort-
able experimenting with anti-terrorism policies, and thus few
field experiments have been run in this domain.
In contrast, laboratory experiments use human participants
in relatively abstract and artificial settings (the laboratory)
which are constructed to capture critical features of theories
being tested. Participants are exposed to different treatments
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
48(3) 373–382
ªThe Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343310391502

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