Marika Landau-Wells - Advancing the Study of Threat Perception in International Relations: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges

Graham Stuart Lounge - Encina Hall West, Room 400

Threat perception is a frequently invoked variable in the study of International Relations.  The concept is remarkably ill-defined, however.  In the literature, “threat perception” acts as an umbrella term for a range of distinct psychological phenomena that are studied at multiple levels of analysis.  To make matters more difficult, much of the basic science of threat perception, conducted at the level of individuals and small groups, takes place in biology and in the cognitive sciences.  To clarify our understanding of what threat perception is (and what it is not), it is thus helpful to consider research from these adjacent fields.  In this talk, I will discuss my book project, Seeking Security: Threat Perception and Policy-Making in a Dangerous World, with particular focus on: (1) the implications of using a biologically-grounded definition of threat perception in the study of policy-making; (2) the data and measurement challenges that arise from doing so; and (3) a set of solutions I have deployed in non-elite and elite samples, including the use of functional neuroimaging and natural language processing tools. 


Welcome!  I am a social scientist with a long-standing interest in the human brain.  My research is broadly concerned with the effects of cognitive processes - including perception, attention, concept formation, and memory - on political behavior writ large.  

Currently, I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Most recently, I was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in SaxeLab, a social cognitive neuroscience lab at MIT. In 2018, I completed my PhD in Political Science at MIT where I was a member of the Security Studies Program.

My primary research project investigates the ways in which the psychological and neurological underpinnings of threat perception influence policy preferences. I am also generally interested in interdisciplinary perspectives on the study of conflict and security. I look to bridge the social and cognitive sciences using a variety of data sources and analytical approaches, including archival research, automated text analysis, observational and experimental studies, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). 

In a recent issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, I describe the ways in which tools from neuroscience and developmental psychology can help us better understand political preferences (un-gated version, with Rebecca Saxe).