Philip E. Rubin and Barbara A. Wanchisen
Today’s world of rapid social, technological, and behavioral change provides new opportunities for communications with few limitations of time or space. The ease by which communications can be made without personal proximity has dramatically affected the volume, types, and topics of communications between individuals and groups. Through these communications, people leave behind an ever-growing collection of traces of their daily activities, including digital footprints provided by text, voice, and other modes of communication. Many personal communications now take place in public forums, and social groups form between individuals who previously might have acted in isolation. Ideas are shared and behaviors encouraged, including threatening or violent ideas and behaviors. Meanwhile, new techniques for aggregating and evaluating diverse and multimodal information sources are available to security services that must reliably identify communications indicating a high likelihood of future violence.
In the context of this changed and changing world of communications and behavior, the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences of the National Research Council presents this volume of three papers as one portion of the vast subject of threatening communications and behavior. We thank the National Science Foundation for funding of the Board, making this special publication possible. The papers review the behavioral and social sciences research on the likelihood that someone who engages in abnormal and/or threatening communications will actually then try to do harm. The focus of the papers is on how scientific knowledge can
inform and advance future research on threat assessments, in part by considering the approaches and techniques used to analyze communications and behavior in the dynamic context of today’s world.
Each author was asked to present and assess scientific research on the correlation between communication-relevant factors and the likelihood that an individual who poses a threat will act on it. The authors were encouraged to consider not only communications containing direct threats, but also odd and inappropriate communications that could display evidence of fixation, obsession, grandiosity, entitled reciprocity, and mental illness.
In “Using Computerized Text Analysis to Assess Threatening Communications and Behavior,” Cindy K. Chung and James W. Pennebaker provide an overview of computerized language techniques for detecting and assessing text-based threats. Approaches include the analysis of language-based datasets (corpora) to help identify and understand threatening communications and responses to them through the study of words.
In “Communications-Based Research Related to Threats and Ensuing Behavior,” H. Dan O’Hair, Daniel Rex Bernard, and Randy R. Roper stress the importance and difficulty of using knowledge gained from communication theory and practice to study threatening behavior and develop useful strategies for managing violent behavior.
In “Approaching and Attacking Public Figures: A Contemporary Analysis of Communications and Behavior,” J. Reid Meloy reviews and integrates recent research on threatening communication and its relationship to escalation, approach, or attack behaviors toward public figures.
The papers in this collection were written within the context of protecting high-profile public figures from potential attack or harm. The research, however, is broadly applicable to U.S. national security including potential applications for analysis of communications from leaders of hostile nations and public threats from terrorist groups. This work highlights the complex psychology of threatening communications and behavior, and it offers knowledge and perspectives from multiple domains that can contribute to a deeper understanding of the value of communications in predicting and preventing violent behaviors.