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ICT researcher wins Young Investigator Award

research assistant professor
Morteza Dehghani, research assistant professor at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies

Morteza Dehghani, research assistant professor at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, received a Young Investigator Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to examine the formation of sacred values – beliefs so cherished that no amount of promised reward or threatened loss can sway them – and to detect their emergence in political or social debates.

“We are thrilled the Air Force Young Investigator Research Program has selected Morteza for this prestigious honor,” said Randall W. Hill Jr., executive director at ICT. “His work to understand how, when and why religiosity and rhetoric create polarizing sacred values will further the aims of ICT as we strive to use computational methods to understand and advance best practices in human negotiation, cross-cultural relations and leadership.”

Dehghani was one of 48 grant recipients selected from a pool of 220 proposals. Through his research, Dehghani also hopes to be able to predict when conflicts might occur and to create more complete models of human decision-making that account for morality-based judgments.

“Opposing sides often rely on sacred rhetoric to evoke emotions in their followers and to frame a conflict into a religious struggle with deep historical roots,” Dehghani said. “We see this in the heated debates about health care, nuclear power and gun ownership. My work looks at shifts in emotion and opinion found online to understand when previously noncontroversial issues take on sacred dimensions.”

The study of sacred values traditionally has been conducted in fields of psychology and sociology, where data is collected through interviews and questionnaires. By applying computer science techniques to analyze blog and Internet posts, Dehghani’s approach opens up a source and scale of information that can help shed light on when and why people begin to frame issues as sacred and therefore non-negotiable.

“Because social media records an electronic timeline, it is a perfect platform to look at emotional and linguistic changes that occur as events unfold,” said Dehghani, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science from Northwestern University. He conducted postdoctoral research at the university’s Department of Psychology before joining ICT in 2010. “For example, we can trace the debate around what became known as the Ground Zero Mosque to a single blog post that turned what had been a mundane issue into a sacred one.”

Dehghani’s proposal, which combines social and computer science, age-old religious tales and modern-day media entries, expands upon his research analyzing the emergence of religious rhetoric in conservative blog posts, as well as the relatively recent framing of Iran’s nuclear energy program as a sacred value for some citizens in that country and the extent to which values imparted in specific religious texts affect the moral reasoning of groups from different cultures. In addition to online data, the effort will involve human study participants from multiple religious and cultural groups in Iran, India, the United States and other countries.

The Young Investigator program awards three to five-year grants to scientists and engineers who received their doctorate in the last five years and who show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research at research institutions across the United States.

The program aims to foster creative basic research in science and engineering; enhance early career development of outstanding young investigators; and increase opportunities for the young investigator to recognize the Air Force mission and related challenges in science and engineering.

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