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Stephen Benard
Department of Sociology

Scott Long
IU Bureau of Social Science Research

Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2009

IU sociologist receives NSF award to study how groups behave under threat

Nov. 3, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Assistant Professor of Sociology Stephen Benard is co-recipient of new National Science Foundation award to study how dominant members of groups behave when a group is facing threats. The grant, which Benard shares with principal investigator Patrick Barclay of the University of Guelph, is part of a joint NSF/Department of Defense program supporting research that explores the social and behavioral dimensions of national security, conflict and cooperation.

IU Bloomington's Bureau of Social Science Research, a center supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, assisted Benard with the grant submission.

Department of Defense

According to the NSF, the joint award competition with the Defense Department focuses on four strategic areas that "address the needs of national security policymakers and the ideals of open academic basic research." Those areas are: authoritarian regimes, the strategic impact of religious and cultural change, terrorist organizations and ideologies, and new dimensions in national security.

In earlier NSF-funded research, Benard has argued that during conflict, groups are more likely to develop stricter norms for group members. The results of these earlier studies, Benard says, "show that conflict influences group cohesion, the emergence of social norms, and the creation of authoritarian hierarchies," which has practical relevance for "developing conflict resolution strategies."

In the newly funded grant, Benard and Barclay will examine the conditions under which group leaders exaggerate threats to achieve or maintain their status. Some group members, say the researchers, bolster their positions by misrepresenting threats to the group in order to maintain their position. Using the techniques and methods of social psychology, Benard and his colleague will investigate the dynamics of this threat manipulation, testing whether patterns of threat manipulation and responses to such manipulation differ according to the nature of the group (democratic and non-democratic) and the nature of the threat (stemming from another group or from non-human causes such as natural disasters). Understanding more about why threat manipulation occurs will shed light on how threat shapes human behavior.

The researchers also will explore the relationship between "threat fatigue," which occurs when group members become skeptical and unresponsive to apparent threats, and how individuals can obtain accurate information about threats on their own.

The application of social-scientific understanding of group behaviors to the interactions within and between nations may yield crucial insights, say Benard and Barclay of their new NSF project.

"The dominance-threat manipulation link is crucial for understanding interactions between leaders and citizens . . . and for reducing corruption, abuses of power, manipulation of citizens by leaders and apathy regarding alleged threats to national security," they write.