Collaborative Research: NSCC/SA: Behavioral Insights into National Security Issues Grant uri icon


  • This award was funded through the Social and Behavioral Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation competition, a joint venture between NSF and the Department of Defense.In the wake of recent terrorist activities, a number of game theoretic models have been developed around terrorism, counterterrorism, prevention and security. However, very few of these theories have been tested for behavioral accuracy, either in the field or in the wind-tunnel environment of the experimental laboratory. This study uses the methodology of experimental economics to test three types of theories that capture key features of security decisions. The first set of experiments investigates attack and defense games, where two players allocate limited resources over a fixed set of targets, and the side with the most resources on a target wins it. The second set tests theories of cooperation among countries in the decision whether to pursue terrorist organizations, protect their own territory, or do nothing, a situation that has been modeled as a nested prisoner''s dilemma game. Through the experiments the investigators will examine how these games are played and explore institutions (such as trade sanctions or cost sharing rules) that have the potential to enhance cooperation. The third set of experiments addresses suicide attacks. Such attacks are often motivated by retaliation for economic inequality between nations. The researchers will create unequal groups in the lab, and vary the extent of the inequality and the strength of group identity. Participants in the disadvantaged group can volunteer to sacrifice their earnings to improve the performance of their own group. The researchers will assess how sacrificing behavior changes in response to variation in the group properties. In summary, this research addresses the question of whether (and when) these theories provide good descriptions of how people act, and suggests improvements and domain limitations to increase their prescriptive power. The intellectual merit of the proposed activity stems from the development and testing of games designed to model strategic situations in national security. On the development side, this study refines existing games to better capture specific underlying strategic situations, and, for the third category, develops new games to capture the incentives to volunteer in between-group competition. On the testing side, the experiments represent the first data on any of these games, and thus contribute to knowledge of how individuals act in strategic situations. The goal is to identify robust psychological regularities which are likely to apply across a large segment of the population. The broader impacts of the proposed activity stem from increased understanding of how individuals act in these strategic situations. This enables improved decision making by the US and its allies, by identifying and avoiding common mistakes that lead individuals to make sub-optimal decisions. It also improves decision making by identifying the mistakes enemies are likely to make, and helping to describe strategies to exploit them.

date/time interval

  • 2013 - 2015