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The Social Psychology of Radicalization and Extremism

What drives young Muslims to radicalization? A psychologist's view


After the Paris terror attacks of Friday 13 November 2015, this earlier published blog about radicalization may be insightful to some.


Western Governments are increasingly concerned about the radicalization of young Muslims, and so they should be. After the Paris terror attacks of 13/11 in which a group of suicide terrorists killed many innocent people before killing themselves, everyone in Europe should be on high alert.

The UN has estimated that the number of foreign jihadists who have joined IS may be over 15,000. According to a British MP this may include as many as 2,000 Britons currently fighting in Syria and Iraq. On a recent visit to Jordan, Prince Charles called the UK radicalization figures “alarming” and one of the “greatest worries.” Similar words have been used by Governments in the US, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. What is radicalization and how can it be prevented? Here are some useful insights from social psychology.1

Suppose you are a potential Jihadist, who considers traveling to Syria to join IS. The journey is not without risks and dangers. You can be arrested at the border, your passport taken, and end up in jail. If you arrive in the Middle East, then you are caught up in a war situation with a reasonable chance that you cannot tell the tale. What chance of dying would you accept to decide to leave for Syria? 1 percent, 10 percent, 25 percent or even 50 percent?

In such dilemmas of choice a strange phenomenon happens. A person is willing to take greater risks after talking about his dilemma with like-minded people. It is therefore important for potential Jihadists to come into contact with people who express different opinions and hold different views.

Social psychological research shows that groups of people often take riskier decisions than individual group members. This phenomenon is called group polarization or the "risky shift."2 It lies at the root of radicalization, because it explains how people can develop more extreme views, for example, regarding the use of violence in conflicts.

There is a long tradition of research on group polarization in social psychology. Psychologists give people a choice -- such as joining IS -- and the question is how much personal risk they are willing to accept. There follows a discussion of the dilemma in a group and then the same people again make an individual risk assessment. What happens? If one already tends towards risk-taking than after the group discussion a "risky shift" occurs. This effect has been demonstrated in many different countries such as the US, France, Germany and Japan, and also with different kinds of dilemmas of a personal, financial, or political nature. In France, for example, researchers asked students to give their opinion about Americans and the French government. Generally, the French hold fairly positive views towards their own government, but are fairly negative towards Americans. Guess what? After discussion with fellow French students, they became even more positive about their government, and more negative about Americans. In other words, their views radicalized.

How can we explain radicalization? First, during group discussion social comparisons are made. People find out what the opinions are of the other group members. And if it appears that the majority of people with whom you communicate, personally or via social media, is willing to take some risk - for example, travel to Syria - then you want to outdo them. The result is that you are becoming a little more extreme after each chat. A second possibility is that by discussing your dilemma with other people – who tend to be sympathizers - you are more likely to hear more arguments in favor than against. So after interactions with likeminded people a person gets increasingly convinced about the correctness of their risky choice. Other research shows that people indeed take more notice of the opinions of their peers. And the more a person identifies with their group the more prone they are to social influence. It is perhaps not surprising that much Muslim radicalization takes place in prisons where people are exposed to extreme views and deviant positions are absent. Thus the prison is a breeding ground for radicalization.

What can we do against radicalization? And what would an anti-radicalization program look like? The anti-terror coordinator of Europe, Gilles de Kerckhove, recently argued for a counteroffensive against the propaganda of IS. That‘s an excellent initiative because it is important that potential jihadists are confronted with other, more moderate opinions than what they get now through Facebook or Twitter. It is crucial to block this propaganda material from the internet. Also, it seems sensible to give a public platform to young Muslim sympathizers who have good reasons not to join IS. Better still: Why don’t we hear from former Jihadists who returned from the Middle East disappointedly and with much regret?

It might further help to be exposed to diverse opinions, because the more diverse a group is the less it is likely to polarize. When American students discussed their dilemma, first alone and then in a group, they radicalized. But when they discussed the same dilemma with a mix of American and Chinese students they became more cautious -- that's called a "cautious shift" in the decision-making literature.

Governments must ensure that potential Jihadists are confronted with the views of moderate Muslims such imams or opinion leaders from politics, sports, or music. If someone close to you radicalizes, don’t ignore it but start a discussion and ask uncomfortable questions.

Science teaches that sharing ideas with a small, tight-knit group of sympathizers leads to radicalization. This pattern can be broken only by confronting people with diverse opinions and unpleasant facts. This “war” of information cannot be won in Syria, but in the homes, mosques, schools, community centers, and sports-clubs in the US, Canada, Britain, France, and the rest of Europe.

Follow me on Twitter: @markvanvugt1

1. An earlier version appeared in the Dutch newspaper "de Volkskrant."

2. See Don Forsyth's Group Dynamics (2014) for an overview of the literature