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ICA Top Paper Profile: Cohen, Leong, Ruby, Pape, & Decety

First author: Dr. Michael Cohen

In our lead up to #ICA24, we are providing information about papers that received Top Paper awards from the Communication Science and Biology (CSaB) Interest Group. Each paper received exceptionally high scores from reviewers. These papers reflect outstanding scholarship in CSaB. Today’s Top Paper features Dr. Michael Cohen. Be sure to check out the paper at #ICA24

CSaB: In a few short sentences, what is your study about?

This study looks at the brain mechanisms that predict persuasiveness in short (30-60 second) ISIS propaganda videos.  It builds on a theoretical framing suggesting that ISIS is unique in using two modes of persuasion: Heroic narratives that appeal to those who have weaker ties to Islamic communities and instead focus on individual goals, and Social narratives that are more community-oriented and appeal more to those with stronger community ties.  We found a double dissociation in the brain, with intersubject correlations (ISCs) in ventral striatum predicting the rated persuasiveness of videos that use Heroic narratives, while ISCs in the mentalizing network of the brain predict rated persuasiveness of videos that use Social narratives.

CSaB: How did you come up with the idea for this line of research?

This was a piece of a larger project that Jean Decety’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab developed in collaboration with UChicago political scientist Robert Pape, to examine neural mechanisms that predict persuasiveness of propaganda in the context of terrorism.  I was interested in being a part of the project because of my interest in how people form extremist beliefs, including beliefs in misinformation, among supporters of Donald Trump and right-wing populist candidates around the world.  To analyze these data, I had to dive in to the world of naturalistic fMRI analysis; I have done a number of projects with task-based MRI, but analyzing naturalistic stimuli was a new skill for me.  Some brain areas of interest from the beginning were reward and mentalizing regions, since both have been associated with choices and persuasion, in the neuroeconomics world and in work by Emily Falk and others in communications.  YC Leong at UChicago then suggested that we try relating ISCs with rated persuasiveness, and after many months of poking at the data, this was the insight that led us to a really compelling double dissociation result that aligned quite well with the theoretical framing that the project began with. I’m excited to get to share this work with the communications scientists in CSaB.  Note also that it was just accepted for publication at Scientific Reports; the final preprint form is available at

CSaB: Tell us more about the team!

I (Michael Cohen) am a postdoc at UChicago.  My PhD work was in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience of memory, but I have been working for a few years to shift more towards social and political questions, and I have been realizing lately that the questions that really get me excited (e.g., why do people believe what they believe, and how does their media consumption contribute to those beliefs?) fall at the overlap of communications and psychology.  My current supervisor (Jean Decety) is a highly-cited expert in social cognitive neuroscience; he particularly made his reputation in work on the neural mechanisms of empathy, but more recently, his passion has been in studying moral conviction — strong moral beliefs that can lead to political extremism and violence.  Yuan Chang Leong is an assistant professor in our department with an expertise in social neuroscience who really helped to clarify my thinking about this project.  Robert Pape and his associate Keven Ruby are political scientists who are experts in political violence and extremism; they contributed some important theoretical background for this project when it was originally conceptualized.

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