Why People Join Fanatical Groups

The ancient need for group identity can take people to destructive places.

Posted Nov 18, 2019

In 2016 a young liberal, middle-class woman named Samantha joined a white supremacist organization. In a CNN interview, she describes her experience, what attracted her to the group, and why she ultimately left. Her boyfriend got involved first, and he began to change—lift weights, read Alt-right books and surf Alt-right web sites. She rose through the ranks of the organization she was in and was soon participating in decisions and planning protests. After the Charlottesville incident in which a young counter-protester was killed, Samantha says that she “was in the movement. It felt good to be an activist, to be in the movement.”   

In an article in The Guardian about why young Muslim men join jihadist organizations, Kamran Ahmed writes:

"The counterculture for young Muslim men at odds with society nowadays is not gang culture but radical extremist factions that offer self-esteem and identity in exchange for allegiance to a violent and morally bankrupt manifesto. Once they are members of the subversive peer group, alarming ideas and behaviours can become normalised very quickly indeed."

Why do people join fanatical organizations that are destructive to civil society and often demand violence or even death from their members? The most common reason advanced by sociologists and psychologists is that affiliation with a group—even white supremacists, gangs, or jihadists—offers identity and a sense of belonging, as Kamran says. Such connections make people feel good, as Samantha says, and it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what the group stands for or does. As a result, people do stubborn, stupid, destructive things and completely ignore evidence in their need to be affiliated with a group.

Where does this characteristic of our species come from? At a time when people who are desperate for a sense of belonging are wreaking havoc all over the world, this is an important question.

Anxiety is pretty old. Chimpanzees get anxious when they don’t get enough to eat and when they’re vying for status or sex. And surely humans get anxious about the same things. But there is reason to believe that there’s additional anxiety that pervades modern human life: a generalized confusion about identity. Chimpanzees don’t worry about who they are, and it is likely that for most of human history our ancestors didn’t either. 

A member of a hunter-gatherer band knew who he or she was—one of “the people,” a son or daughter, a person related to everyone in the band.  But people in large, diverse societies rarely have this level of connection.   Families are split up, scattered through different states, even countries, with lives that don’t involve one another much at all.

The need for affiliation that drives people to join organizations is part of the evolutionary legacy of living in groups made up of related people for hundreds of thousands of years. As humans, we seem to have a built-in expectation that we will fit somewhere, that people will acknowledge us and care about us, that, in short, we will be in a band. When we don’t fit, when we don’t get acknowledged, we lose our bearings. Many people still get their fundamental identity from family, but families can sometimes be poisonous environments where anxious, neglectful, or violent parents pass their psychological problems on to their children. So people join gangs, clubs, churches, and teams and pledge their allegiance to nations and to corporations.

The anxiety that is generated from confusion about identity pervades the modern human psyche like dark matter pervades the universe. Like dark matter, it’s invisible, but its “gravity” drives our behavior.  Some people assuage the anxiety by immersing their identity in nationalism. ISIS terrorists immerse their identity in religion. White supremacists immerse theirs in racial hatred.  It’s terrifying to contemplate the power of this anxiety. People are so desperate to belong, to be recognized, and to be around those who care that they latch onto whatever promises some relief.  And when that relief is threatened, they lash out like cornered animals.