The Psychology of Radicalisation

While the risk of radicalisation is present for all individuals, there are simple ways to counter and prevent the radicalisation process.
Keywords: Radicalisation, Terror, COnflict, Psycological, Risk, Society, Prevention, Sociology, Extremism
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Most studies on the psychology behind radicalisation often seem to either begin or end with an emphasis on the fact that there is no one personality, attitude or psychological state that can be seen as a direct predictor of an individual getting radicalised and that radicalisation is a process. While reviewing the literature on the subject, it almost appears as if the ones who come across or discover this field of study, expect to find a separate category of humans born evil and ready to terrorise others or a group of adults with an innate urge to cause destruction. While people who have violent and aggressive tendencies do exist, it is highly unlikely that the majority of the thousands if not millions of people involved globally in terrorist activities, fit into this category.

The research for this article began with the intent to chart out a profile or group of profiles for individuals who are radicalised or at risk of radicalisation. Through the course of a review of the current literature, it became clear that the “risk factors” for radicalisation are so numerous that they can be found in some permutation or combination in almost every individual. While looking for the answer to “who is radicalised?”, the answer to “how s/he became radicalised” became clearer. This is probably why most researchers working in the field today club counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation with radicalisation.

In most of the policy documents used by multilateral organisations and papers published by terrorism experts, the psychology behind radicalisation is unfortunately treated as a mere side note of interest or a brief explanation of why people might engage in violent terrorism rather than a specialised matter of study in itself. This could be because people look to psychology for precise answers to black-and-white questions such as, who is likely to become a killer? or what are the personalities of bad people? and of course psychology, being a study of individual human beings who can never be explained in terms of the absolutes of black and white, right and wrong or good and bad, is not only unable to answer such questions but also finds such questions to be flawed in themselves.

Sociology as a study of groups can alleviate the frustrations of scholars and researchers in the field by providing some hard numbers and statistics. Such statistics are often used as guidelines for counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation policies. These policies, however, often tend to report low or varying success rates as well as the uncertainty of outcomes. The reason behind these low success rates goes back to the field of psychology. The reality is that individuals are quite complex. They are influenced not only by an uncountable number of external variables but also by non-observable combinations of internal variables in relation to these external variables. The quality, content, nature and experience of the reaction to these combinations differ across individuals. The anger of one is not the same as the anger of another. Even if in a controlled situation, two individuals have the same experience and somehow the same set of emotions, with the same intensity, their reactions to the experience will differ. Group statistics therefore generally don’t translate well when directly applied for in-depth understanding of individuals. This is why counter-radicalisation and de-radicalisation measures based solely on sociological findings tend to have lower than expected success rates. Therefore, as intimidating and sometimes even frustrating the field of psychology might seem, a combination of sociology with psychology is needed in academic and practical works in the field of radicalisation, de-radicalisation and counter-radicalisation.  

‘Tolerance’ is a very commonly used word, often clubbed with the word ‘peace’ to articulate the formula of “Peace and Tolerance”. This term is used by many human rights and social justice advocates or activists to promote acceptance. However, from a psychological perspective the connotation of the word tolerance changes substantially. In-fact, peaceful and tolerant people are the best starting point to understand the first component of radicalisation, i.e extremism. The fine line between “Peace and Tolerance” and “Violence and Intolerance” within an individual often lies at “Non-violent and Capable of Tolerating”. When one tolerates another, it indicates that s/he perceives the other to be the cause of some amount of loss in her/his quality of life. Usually, people tolerate something, someone, some idea or some group, because the inconvenience of intolerance outweighs the present perception of disturbance in quality of life. However, when a tolerant person not only realises but also is constantly reminded of the fact that s/he is tolerating something, that sense of the unfairness of her/his own experience becomes a driver for the person to become intolerant and this continuous process results in the rise of an extremist mindset.

Extremism then becomes a stepping stone for the second component of radicalisation i.e., justified violence (internal justification of violence within the individual). Once some individuals become intolerant, their understanding of their own situation becomes extreme. If an individual is unable to tolerate something, the only logical choice that remains is to remove that thing from their life. However, removing a belief system, government institution, people of certain physical or mental characteristics etc., from one’s life, is not the same as removing a piece of furniture we don’t like from our house. The build-up of intolerance over time leads to such high levels of extremism that for some eventually violent means of action to alleviate the aggravation caused by having to tolerate become justified. 

Unfortunately, the era of the internet, social media and global connectivity while helping to enhance the sense of similarity and oneness between individuals, has also led to an increase in the capabilities of power-driven, political and economic entities to divide people into groups based on religion, gender identity, race and other factors where demarcations can be as exact as possible when dealing with humans who are complex, social and have a tendency to not fit well within categories. Rising loneliness, mental illness and other social stressors have encouraged individuals to turn to in-person and online groups where they can discuss and find social support among others with similar experiences. Such groups, though originating with positive intentions, also become perfect environments to create echo chambers and promote groupthink, increasing the potential for extremism. These environments also create a situation of mutual radicalisation where two or more parties with opposing extremist view-points end up radicalising each other into opposing ideologies. 

While the affect and cognition behind radicalisation is similar for the majority of the radicalised individuals, the active antecedent events that trigger or catalyse the process of radicalisation vary from case to case. Broadly, the radicalisation process can be divided into two categories, namely, group radicalisation and individual radicalisation. 

Group radicalisation arises when extremism is glorified by the immediate social group or from a group member’s point of view, what one considers her/his ingroup; this group can be based on race, religion, ideology, class or any other such aspects. Generally, it would include family, friends, preachers and/or educators who already hold extremist view-points. In such a situation extremism is encouraged, rewarded and glorified, conditioning the individual to hold extremist viewpoints as well since such recognition and effect is normalised within her/his social circle. Such individuals are generally surrounded by people who think like them and even in the rare event in which they communicate outside of their immediate social circle, they usually do so with other groups with similar views forming an illusion in their mind that the majority within and even outside their community hold the same views as them. 

Individual radicalisation, where a single individual gets radicalised even though his/her social circle does not have any extremist tendencies, has different catalysing factors. Individual radicalisation usually takes place in those who experience social exclusion and face self-regulation failure i.e. they find it difficult to make decisions in their best interest, such people may face mental illness, high levels of distress and substance abuse issues. The feeling of social exclusion can take place at any stage of life and be caused by numerous factors such as poor relationships with parents, getting bullied in school or the workplace, breakups, the perceived experience of discrimination etc. Social isolation and issues with self-regulation, can result in maladaptive behaviours and result in negative consequences leading to a higher sense of self-isolation, disenfranchisement and negativity towards social norms or systems.

While the risk of radicalisation is present for all individuals, there are simple ways to counter and prevent the radicalisation process. The first important measure is awareness. Awareness plays a key role in keeping our cognition and behaviour in check, it allows us to create boundaries within our minds, creating somewhat of an alarm system such that we become mentally aware whenever we are about to cross those boundaries. These boundaries are natural and based on basic human values shared across societies and cultures, and are the first line of defence when it comes to radicalisation. The second measure is encouraging exploration of opinions and experiences outside of one’s ingroup. It’s important to hear the experiences of people who are different from oneself or the social groups one belongs to even if the differing experiences are not agreeable to one’s own experiences or world views. This allows the increased potential for empathy and understanding despite disagreement, which in-turn counters extremist attitudes towards other individuals or groups, humanising them in one’s mind.

Another measure is, noticing mental distress in oneself and in others. Just as most know that if they experience chest pain, they need to go to the hospital for a check-up, individuals should be able to recognise mental distress in themsselves and others so that they can seek the required mental health assistance. This not only prevents substance abuse and other maladaptive behaviours and thought processes but also reduces the risk of radicalisation as it allays the experience of individual isolation within the social group. Lastly, the perception of the role played by the government and legal institutions is also an important factor in countering radicalisation. In societies where exposure to diversity in various forms (In-person, via media, entertainment industry etc.) is high, there is less ingroup vs outgroup thinking based on race, beliefs and ideology and more sense of commonality based on geographical location, economic circumstances, lifestyles etc. Generally, any distress caused in such environments is directed to the governments and as long as there is a fundamental belief within the individuals that the government or responsible institutions are accountable to them and adjust according to their demands, the chances of intolerance rising within them remains low. 

As previously indicated, de-radicalisation programs have varying success rates and methods depending on the country or organisations managing them. Identifying the effective approaches for de-radicalisation and why they work, would require a separate article in itself. As this article approaches the psychology of radicalisation from the standpoint of an individual existing within social, institutional and legal norms to one who moves out of those norms in a manner that is harmful to others, the next article on de-radicalisation will analyse the psychology of an individual who has gone outside the above norms and must return to their fold. This process unfortunately is more difficult than the process of radicalisation, as those who get radicalised are vulnerable at the outset whereas those who need to be de-radicalised start with a strong sense of purpose, rigid world views as well as hyper-active self-defense mechanisms.

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Anmol Mahajan

Anmol Mahajan is Research Fellow at India Foundation. She has recently completed her Master's in Clinical Psychology from Amity University Uttar Pradesh, Noida.

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