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What We Know About Radicalization

A large body of research explains what leads people to adopt radical beliefs.

Key points

  • Researchers have identified the key factors that lead people to adopt radical beliefs.
  • There is evidence that the factors vary based on a person's idealogy.
  • Researchers have also identified some factors that protect against radicalization.
momius/Adobe Stock
Source: momius/Adobe Stock

Terrorist attacks – acts of violence with the purpose of creating ideological change – are on the rise in the U.S. and globally. In 2019, there were 68 terrorist attacks in the U.S., up from 18 in 2008. Globally, deaths from terrorism rise and fall each year depending on international relations and politics. Over the past decade, terrorists have killed an average of 21,000 people a year.

The people who carry out these attacks have been described by social science researchers as radicalized; they adopt extreme views and beliefs that eventually impact their behaviors. Less than 1 percent of people who become radicalized actually carry out violent acts. Even still, preventing people from becoming radicalized is a potential way to reduce terrorism.

The findings are surprisingly nuanced, providing a road map of factors that can lead people down a radical path.

The review includes 127 studies – half published between 2018 and 2020 – conducted in democratic countries. (It does not include data from non-democratic countries, including nations in the Middle East that experience some of the highest levels of terrorism.)

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis – meaning they combined data from separate studies – to identify risk factors that can lead to radicalization. After reviewing more than 100 factors, they found a small number that increase the risk of radicalization and identified some factors that protect people from becoming radicalized.

There were three factors that most significantly predicted if someone would become radicalized. People who experience identity fusion – when allegiance to a social group becomes more important than the person’s own identity and wellness – were most likely to become radicalized. Obsessing about a passion and spending time incarcerated were also significant predictors of radicalization.

There are a few dozen additional factors that moderately increased participants’ risk of radicalization. People who had been threatened, dehumanized, and perceived that they were discriminated against were more likely to become radicalized.

Machoism, anger, and a general negative attitude also led to radicalization. Men were more likely to become radicalized than women. A job loss, a criminal history, current or past military experience, and thrill-seeking behaviors also led to radicalization.

Researchers found a single factor that most strongly protected people from becoming radicalized: the value of following the law, or being a law-abiding citizen.

Researchers also found that some risk factors were more prominent for specific ideologies. For example, right-wing extremists were more likely to become radicalized if they were socially alienated and held strong religious beliefs.

Left-wing extremists were more likely to become radicalized if they were on welfare and if they experienced moral neuralization. This is a condition when people with normal moral beliefs convince themselves there are no other options available, and therefore accept their actions.

Islamist extremists are more likely to become radicalized if they had feelings of anger and moral neuralization, and if they have higher levels of education. People of Islamic background were less likely to become radicalized if they had immigrated to a non-Islamic country.

The idea of the review, the authors explained, was to inform the creation of evidence-based interventions designed to prevent the factors that lead to radicalization and encourage the factors that protect people from adopting extreme beliefs.

The take-home message: The evidence allows us to predict, to some extent, the people who are most likely to adopt radical beliefs and potentially engage in terrorism. These data can serve as a starting point for developing intervention programs that prevent terrorism, and also as tool to help identify people who may become radicalized.