If U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were trusted more by the locals, would they be safer? A Longwood University psychology professor thinks so, and she is trying to help the military’s counterinsurgency efforts through a project to build trust between strangers from different cultures.

Dr. Sarai Blincoe has been helping coordinate a grant-funded project in conjunction with the Naval Research Laboratory that will test a "social psychological model of trust" in a survey of people in Jordan and Lebanon. The "experimental poll" of 600 people in each country will test the theory that engaging in sacrificial acts generates far more trust than self-beneficial or mutually beneficial acts—which can be used by the military in counterinsurgency. One of the project’s funders is the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Depending on continued funding, the polling will be expanded to countries in northern Africa and the Pacific Rim.

"A major aspect of counterinsurgency is building trust with local populations, which has been challenging as evidenced by our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Blincoe, assistant professor of psychology. "Our approach involves risks, but we think it will have bigger payoffs."

Jordanian and Lebanese adults will be randomly assigned to read one of nine different versions of a story in which an American diplomat, an American working for a nongovernmental organization, or a local employee of the Jordanian/Lebanese government proposes to his supervisor a project that would benefit his community. The boss’ reaction varies, though in each version the employee ends up doing the project, with varying results.

"As the factors in the story change, we will get to see how that affects trust," said Blincoe. "In some versions, both the employee and the community benefit—for example, the employee could get a raise or a promotion—but in others, the employee is taking a risk, such as getting fired. The key question is: Will trust build more when it’s a sacrifice as opposed to a mutual benefit? We predict trust will be greater when it’s a sacrifice instead of a mutual benefit."

It is hoped that the data will be collected during the summer. Then it will be analyzed, after which she and her collaborators will publish their findings and present them at conferences.

Blincoe began working during summer 2012 on the project, "Generating Trust in the Counterinsurgency Context," at the invitation of Lt. David Combs, a Navy researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., who had previously done research on trust in the political setting. They met in graduate school at the University of Kentucky, where both earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology.

 "The Navy is interested in how the social sciences can inform military strategy and tactics, and all branches of the military are doing something something," said Blincoe. "Most are funding research into culture. The Army recently hired anthropologists for what it calls ‘cultural terrain’ teams—anthropologists who go along on their missions and say ‘Look, you’re interpreting that flag as a threat, but it represents something about their culture or country.’

"The military is starting to think more about this because the type of war we’re fighting has changed from conventional—my tanks versus your tanks— to insurgencies, so we need a different approach. The enemy is not on a battlefield—they’re in the town, among the people, blending in. The military is realizing it has to learn about the local people and get them on their side. There are other models of trust in the social sciences, but we are tailoring this to the unique counterinsurgency environment."

An example of taking risks in the name of building trust can be found in the military’s decision to move its forward-operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan closer to the local community, Blincoe said. "Troops used to march out in the morning from a very secure base to the nearby town or city, then return to their base in the evening. But they found that the local people didn’t trust them or help them, so they moved their bases closer to, and integrated with, the towns and cities, which has improved the safety of both the military and the locals. They took a risk, but it was beneficial—because the people supported it."

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