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Leah Fredman

College: Lehman College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2014

Exploring Roots of Fanaticism

Why are some people willing to take extreme action on behalf of a social group, either volunteering for the good of others or strapping on and detonating explosives in a crowd?

In doctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin, Leah Fredman (Lehman College, B.A. in psychology with minor in art, 2012) explores a theory that may predict extreme levels of social identification. With support from a 2014 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, she intends to study “identity fusion” in Israel, “a place of intractable conflicts” where she was raised.

“The theory of identity fusion is relatively new,” says Fredman, who was born in Riverdale, the Bronx. “People who are fused view other group members as family. I’m looking at trust, because fusion is a strong predictor of trust among in-group members. There hasn’t been a lot of work on pro-social behaviors in fusion - most has focused on self-sacrifice - but I’m looking at both aspects to understand the mechanics of the theory.”

Individuals may fuse with any group, she says, but she believes that fusion levels in the Middle East are much higher than those Americans have with America. One prominent factor is collective trauma. “We had 9/11, but places that have continuously high levels of trauma probably have higher levels of identity fusion.”

She hopes that her basic research will have practical implications for regions where group identity has become a proxy for strife rooted in financial insecurity, conflicts over sacred values and other factors that can outweigh rational behavior. “It’s obvious that we are missing something. Identity fusion might be one way in which we can get a fresh view at ways to understand conflict and maybe tailor better resolutions,” Fredman says. “The Middle East is pretty depressing.”

Fredman, who had a perfect 4.0 GPA, said Lehman’s faculty “took a personal interest in me and were there any time I had a question.” She praised campus day care, which freed her time for study while nurturing her older child, now 5. “All Noam wanted to do was get bigger to go to the next classroom,” she says. Her other son, Aidan, is 2.

She met her husband, Aron Wolinetz, in Israel. He earned a bachelor’s in real estate at Baruch College and a master’s in mathematics at Lehman. Now a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center, he studies mathematics and computer science with Lehman Distinguished Professor Victor Pan and teaches at Lehman. “It’s a long commute,” Fredman says.

The National Science foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This federal grant provides $132,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.