It's all in our heads


A typical political scientist is not likely to develop a research plan that employs data from national archives, survey experiments, public health data, and an fMRI study in a single dissertation. But then, Marika Landau-Wells is not your typical political scientist.

Rooted squarely at the “intersection of cognition and conflict,” Landau-Wells, a PhD student in the Security Studies Program, is using psychology and neuroscience to better understand political behavior — specifically, why we respond to perceived threats the way we do. Her interdisciplinary approach opens up a variety of avenues for gathering different types of data.

“My hope is that the theory and language and framework I’m building will help people understand why they disagree about policies made in response to perceived threats,” she says. These “threats,” she explains, can range from nuclear weapons to influxes of immigrants.

“A huge part of conflict — in the blood-and-battlefield sense, but also in the policymaking sense — comes down to not being very good at imagining why the other person thinks what they do,” she adds. “Until they do, the two sides will continue to talk past each other. This can mean the continuation of a real war or of policy deadlock.

Read the story on MIT News

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Landau-Wells envisions a career in academia, ideally with the chance to do intervention evaluations for organizations like the World Bank that bring “a cognitive-science-informed point of view” to political problems.