The Psychology of Extremism

Early warning signs and protective factors.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

 Who Is Danny/Shutterstock
Source: Who Is Danny/Shutterstock

Few would disagree that preventing extremism is a laudable goal, but even discussing extremism and radicalization may seem problematic within the field of psychiatry. Psychiatry’s legitimacy is largely based on its impartiality and independence from power structures associated with political regimes and religious organizations. Without this independence, there is a clear worry that it could become merely another tool of oppression used by the in-group in power to define behaviors, opinions, and beliefs that characterize the out-group as being in some way deviant from what is considered normal or even a form of sickness to be “cured.” If a totalitarian regime were actively committing genocide, for example, it would seem wrong to label those fighting against it as extremists, and it would seem just as wrong to grant the regime the power to do so.

This difficulty is part of the reason why there is no agreement within science or society as to what specifically constitutes extremism, though there are some core elements that do enjoy consensus. Most would agree that the term does not merely denote an individual who has opinions that are considered outside of the norm, who is to the far end of one side of the political spectrum, or who is overzealous in their religious beliefs. Rather, the concern is that these beliefs in some way increase one’s propensity for violence against other groups, and, just as importantly, that this behavior occurs within a culture where such violence is not tolerated or expected. As potentially objectionable as they are, the dangers of extremism and radicalization are not about the beliefs espoused by the individual alone but about the fear that these beliefs will make them more inclined to participate in acts of violence, particularly in the form of terrorism.

What Causes Extremism?

There is a popular belief that social media and websites that amplify in-group outrage play a major role in radicalizing individuals, but these sources only exacerbate preexisting sentiments; they do not cause them or explain the motivations that underlie the radicalization process. Similarly, many models do an excellent job of following the path of radicalization to extremism. They also note that extremism is a heterogeneous phenomenon that can occur under a wide array of conditions.

However, a great deal of research seems to evade the question of why some individuals are more susceptible to radicalization than others. Understanding these risk factors provides a way to prevent extremism rather than undertaking the arduous task of rehabilitating extremists, and it would seem that the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is particularly appropriate since rehabilitation often happens following an act of violence.

A recently published paper by Andreas Beelmann, “A Social-Developmental Model of Radicalization: A Systematic Integration of Existing Theories and Empirical Research,” strives to accomplish this end. In his paper, Beelmann argues that the radicalization process takes place in three steps: “ontogenetic development processes, proximal radicalization processes, and as a result, extremist attitudes/opinions and behavior/action.” What interests me, in particular, is the first step: ontogenetic development processes—the steps to maturity from childhood to adulthood. Beelmann claims that adverse developmental conditions in one’s early life, combined with a lack of protective factors, are what set the stage for the remaining two steps. He lists three distinct risk factors:

  • Societal risk factors (e.g., real intergroup conflicts, intergroup threats, the prevalence of ideologies legitimizing violence)
  • Social risk factors (e.g., violence in the home, the experience of group discrimination, minimal social diversity)
  • Individual risk factors (e.g., personality characteristics that favor domination/authoritarianism, self-esteem problems, antisocial behavior)

Quantifying Factors

The risk factors described by Beelmann do offer important insights about why some younger individuals are more receptive to extremist positions than others. Beelmann also describes how his social-development model could be employed in different ways and at various periods of development for optimal effect. He notes, for example, that the period between the ages of 8 and 12 is a sensitive time for the development of prejudices, while identity development and nascent political socialization occurs in adolescence. In-school programs and various means of intervention at these crucial times could potentially be very effective at nipping extremism in the bud.

Even more important than the risk factors, Beelmann and others make it clear that the effects of the risk factors noted above can be mitigated when protective factors are in place. They are effectively the guardrails that keep the individual from deviating too severely from cultural norms. What are some of these protective factors?

Michael Wolfowicz and colleagues published a meta-analysis last year that asked this exact question and even attempted to quantify the effects of these protective factors on radical attitudes, radical intentions, and radical behaviors.

In terms of radical attitudes, they wrote, “The smallest effects were found for political participation and socio-demographic factors such as socioeconomic status, education, marital status, and age.” Political satisfaction, depression, friendships with out-group individuals, and general trust had a slightly larger impact, while “factors pertaining to school bonding and performance, parental involvement, and institutional trust” had a medium-sized impact. The largest effect was “law abidance.”

There was significantly less data for radical intentions, but they found notable effects for out-group friendships, education, and age. For radical behaviors, the largest effects were seen in law abidance, followed by law legitimacy and age. School bonding had a moderate effect. Education and parental involvement had a relatively low effect. Being married had a low effect, while previous military service had virtually no effect on influencing radical behaviors.

Wolfowicz and colleagues also quantified risk factors on radical attitudes, radical intentions, and radical behaviors and noted a veritable laundry list of items. Those found to produce some of the most significant effects were:

  • Radical attitudes (in diminishing order): highly similar peers, authoritarian/fundamentalist views, belief in in-group superiority, realistic threats to in-group, police contact, symbolic threats to in-group, criminal history, thrill/risk-seeking, low self-control, and skepticism about the legitimacy of government (low legitimacy)
  • Radical intentions (in diminishing order): Radical attitudes, belief in in-group superiority, activist intentions, realistic threats to in-group, symbolic threats to in-group, low self-esteem, in-group connectedness, a strong religious/national identity, individual and collective relative deprivations, and male gender
  • Radical behaviors (in diminishing order): Radical attitudes, low self-control, criminal history, authoritarian/fundamentalist views, deviant peers, thrill/risk-seeking behavior, lack of citizenship status, unemployment, exposure to violence, and low integration

These may not be the most satisfying results, as they do not provide a silver bullet to prevent extremism or radicalization, but the data suggests that things like school bonding and a general sense of trust play a key role in protecting against radicalization, while radical attitudes may be amplified when one maintains chauvinistic beliefs about the group to which they belong and remain largely insulated from intragroup interactions. Additionally, many of the risk factors described by Wolfowicz and colleagues are also at the heart of criminological theories, suggesting that there appears to be a causal nexus for antisocial, criminal, and extremist behaviors, even if these behaviors may manifest in different ways.

Meanwhile, the societal and social risk factors described by Beelmann exist beyond the mental health practitioner’s purview and stem from very real injustices that disproportionately impact specific communities. Correcting these inequities will require government action. However, the individual risk factors described by Beelmann and many of the risk factors described by Wolfowicz et al. highlight that deprivation and injustice are not the only sources of extremism. Many risk factors can be ameliorated by providing children with a loving and comforting environment in the home.

Again, there is no one silver bullet to combat extremism, but those of us within the field of psychiatry should be aware of the risk factors and the protective factors noted above, particularly for those of us who work with adolescents and families. Hopefully, working to prevent radicalization will not just translate into fewer extremists but also fewer tragedies.