You might assume that the idea for Ty Joplin’s senior thesis, “Doing the Right Thing: Investigating How Individuals Radicalize,” was ripped from the headlines, but it was actually an episode of the Radiolab podcast that inspired the political science major’s exploration of what drives people to join ISIS. The episode reconsidered a famous experiment in which Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram and his team found most study participants were willing to perform acts that conflicted with their personal consciences (i.e., administering electric shocks to another person) in order to obey the orders of an authority figure.
“Most people assume humans are able to commit evil because we are deferential to authority figures, that we become robots to authorities [and] we are able to not claim any responsibility for our acts because we were just ‘following orders,'” says Joplin. “It turns out, that’s not true, and [the results of] Milgram’s experiments, which jumpstarted this idea of human nature, aren’t true. People identified deeply with scientific advancement, and that’s what allowed them to shock their peers, supposedly up to lethal levels. They were convinced the experiment they were conducting was for a good cause. I applied this thinking to radicalization—that individuals join groups like ISIS because they are convinced it is a good cause.”
He began working on this theory during a Center for Peace and Global Citizenship-sponsored internship at Tel Aviv University in Israel last summer. And over the course of the last year, he continued working on the idea of radicalization with Associate Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn. But if his research taught him one thing it’s that the reasons people join ISIS aren’t well understood, even by supposed experts. That’s why Joplin hopes to continue to work on this problem and others related to counterterrorism.
As a recipient of a prestigious Boren Scholarship, he is now headed to Amman, Jordan, for 10-months of intensive Arabic study at Qasid Arabic Institute to help him in this quest. As part of the award, he will work for the federal government after he finishes his studies.
“I think my thesis has helped shape what I want to do,” he says. “More specifically, I want to keep learning about how radicalization works and how it can be stopped.”
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I learned a lot about how people work, what motivates us to act, and to value certain things, namely that a lot of people are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, but the range of interpretations of what a “better place” is is what causes many people to actually hurt others and endanger themselves and others. My biggest takeaway is that radicalization is very poorly understood by policymakers and analyst,s and we have a ways to go before we truly understand it.
What are the implications for your thesis research?
The implications are that people must conduct more rigorous research on radicalization, and that they must account for an individual’s moral drive if they want to know how people can go down the path of eventually joining a group like ISIS.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.